Cal-Arizona State 3: With the season on the line, can Cal pull of an upset?

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In movies, the completion of a trilogy usually involves a satisfying ending, but that’s not always the case in sports. Over the course of the first two installments, the Bears suffered defeat at the hands of the Sun Devils by a combined 14 goals. With a third opportunity on the horizon, the blue and gold will try to create their own resolution.

The Bears take the field in Stanford, the host of this year’s Pac-12 tournament, to play the Sun Devils on May 5 at 4 p.m. PST. Wednesday’s contest will kick off the third-ever tournament held by the conference, as COVID-19 canceled last year’s postseason. In 2019, the Bears and the Sun Devils met in Oregon for the first round of the tournament where Cal came away with a 12-8 victory. Cal will look to replicate those results Wednesday. However, based on the Bears’ competitiveness within the conference during the second half of the season, senior Nikki Zaccaro doesn’t anticipate a seismic shift in the game plan.

“I think we need to just focus on ourselves, focus on playing together on both ends of the field, and that’s where we’ve been the most successful,” Zaccaro said. “We’ve had one or two close games in general with every single team that we could face. I think that’s good for confidence going into the tournament. It’s hard to be a team three times, and I think we’re excited to get out there and put it all on-field play as one team.”

The Bears’ game plan will need to account for two things: After the March 14 showdown, head coach Brooke Eubanks highlighted Arizona State’s ability to open up the inside arc for either a drive or a feed. Secondly, attacker Quinnlyn Mason emphasized the need to protect the ball and finish shots. But in Cal’s last three games, including a second loss against Arizona State, it averaged 18 turnovers per game, although it did lower its total in each successive game, and only 44% of its shots on goal found the back of the net. The Bears will need to put together a complete game for all 60 minutes, as Eubanks noted after Cal’s loss to Arizona State in mid-April.

Cal was supposed to face Colorado in the first round, however, Arizona State’s intended opponent, Oregon, withdrew from the tournament due to COVID-19 protocols. Alternatively, Colorado will face off against USC, and Stanford will welcome the winner of Cal-ASU. The Bears offer a quality matchup against the Sun Devils, but they will have to maintain their strong defensive efforts. They have allowed more than 12 goals in just one of their past nine games. Meanwhile, Arizona State is 1-3 in games where they have scored at most 12. 

While the game will be broadcasted on Pac-12 networks, Cal has gone 0-2 during televised games in the regular season. Yet the tournament provides a very different atmosphere, as described by Zaccaro.

“The Pac-12 network is really important for growing the game out west,” Zaccaro said. “And I think it’s really cool that our conference does have so many exciting games this year. I think it’s needed for TV to have such a good conference this year, and we’re very excited to be able to play.”

As Zaccaro and the rest of the Bears long for the big games of the postseason, they look to give the Cal-Arizona State trilogy a gratifying conclusion.

Ali Fazal covers lacrosse. Contact him at afazaldailycal.org.