Bittersweet ending to emotional season

photo of Berkeley women's water polo players
Karen Chow/File

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Last season, the Bears couldn’t control their own destiny. The pandemic forced the season to shut down without notice, and all of a sudden it was over. The team wouldn’t have a chance to win the national title they so desperately craved. It was painful because the Bears couldn’t make peace with what they accomplished — it was simply stripped away. They couldn’t go out on their own terms.

And even though this year’s season did not end according to plan, the team got to end it together. After an early MPSF Tournament loss to Arizona State cost Cal a chance to compete in the NCAA championship bracket, the blue and gold had one more opportunity to play together in a match against Indiana. Instead of ending the season apart and isolated, the team went out together for one last win.

On Saturday, the Bears played their first game of the tournament against the hosting Sun Devils. They had beaten ASU twice earlier in the season and expected to secure a third victory. That third victory would be critical, because Cal needed it in order to make it into the top four of the tournament. Everyone on the team knew that if they didn’t finish in the top four, their chances of qualifying for the NCAA Championship would be virtually nonexistent.

ASU goalie Chelsea Karimazondo had other plans. She put up a masterpiece, with a whopping 19 saves. Cal took good shots, but Karimazondo was a brick wall in front of the cage. The Bears could only score on eight of their 36 shot attempts, and those eight goals weren’t enough. The Sun Devils pulled off the upset, and the Bears had to accept their fate.

Many teams would have lost all of their will to compete after a crushing upset loss like this, but the emotions only brought this squad closer together. The seniors, about to play in their final game as Bears, motivated the troops to go all-out in their finale. Head coach Coralie Simmons praised their ability to overcome the heartbreak.

“It was difficult coming out of that loss against ASU, but that senior unit knows that it’s bigger than the wins and losses,” Simmons said. “It’s a team that we want to keep together and stay steadfast, and they came into Sunday’s game and finished strong. They made a big push to end on a note of winning and on a note of doing it together.”

While the seniors were the emotional leaders of the team, a junior stepped up to lead them in the pool. Dutch center Kitty Lynn Joustra had the best game of her career, with six goals on only seven shot attempts. The Hoosiers simply had no answer for her, and the Bears were galvanized by her presence. Coach Simmons had nothing but praise for Joustra. 

“She’s just one of those athletes that can capture games, kind of take games over and really provide what the team needs when things aren’t going right,” Simmons said. “That game was a testament to her competitiveness and it was great for the conference and for her teammates to rally around her energy. She’s just a lot of fun to coach and she’s an awesome teammate, so beyond her statline, she really elevated the team to get the job done.”

Once the final buzzer ended the 13-11 win, the team once again walked away from water polo. But unlike last year, when the game was stolen from the Bears, they went out doing what they loved. And coach Simmons knows that despite the tournament disappointment, the heart and pride of this team shine brighter than any trophy.

“I think they just take a lot of pride in their approach and their focus on being a really tight unit and doing it together, through thick and thin,” Simmons said. “I’m just proud of them for showing up and playing through adverse conditions, months and months of adverse conditions and coming out with the peace of mind that we put everything on the table. Yes, we came up short, but we came out with a feeling of putting everything out there and being proud of that.”

Casey Grae covers women’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].