Bears aim to beat the best, set to spar with No. 1 USC

photo of a Cal men's water polo player during a game
Karen Chow/Senior Staff

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If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.

Due to last weekend’s surprising loss against Pepperdine, the Bears fell from No. 2 to No. 5 ahead of this weekend’s spar with No. 1 USC in Los Angeles. If Cal wants the proverbial crown back, the Bears cannot let this opportunity slip by them. Moreover, the Trojans have bested Cal in their last two matchups, so there is expected to be some personal stake in this match for the blue and gold.

While the drop in ranking hurts, the Bears are cognizant of their mistakes and know what to improve upon.

“Just our focus for the whole game has got to be better. Our commitment to how we attack teams that are doing similar stuff to us on the defensive end is going to be important,” said head coach Kirk Everist.

Whether it’s in life or in sports, patience is a virtue. If Cal wants to prevent any more self-inflicted losses like at the Pepperdine match, it is critical that the team loosens up and play within the flow of the game.

“We got a little jumpy and it was panicking –– offensive, defensive overcorrecting or trying to attack too quickly instead of letting stuff come and just getting a good possession,” Everist said.

This upcoming game will likely result in a close finish. The last time the blue and gold faced off against the cardinal and gold was Sept. 26, in which Cal lost narrowly by one point, 11-12. Staying poised under pressure will be critical to winning the game.

“Once again, that patience, that calmness under pressure is going to be really important,” Everist said. “Recognizing when they’re dealing with matchups and trying to exploit some matchups. We did a pretty good job last time, we’re going to have to continue to do that this time.”

Playing hard can keep a team in the game, but playing smart is what wins games.

“On our offensive attack, we’ve got to break that pressure calmly and consistently and force them to back off a little bit,” Everist said. “We’ve got to do a better job of attacking that zone and working as a group to do that. … A lot of one-on-one defense has been a big focus for all of our games … and that’ll come into play with USC as well.”

Regardless of the sport, teams who play stellar on both sides of the ball tend to be a tough out, which is why the Trojans are the No. 1 men’s water polo team in the nation.

“They’re an excellent team. They have really powerful offensive weapons and they play a very aggressive defensive style,” Everist said.

In order to maximize potential, teams must play to the strengths of their personnel. No team does this better than USC, as the Trojans have one of the most staunch defenses in the nation.

“Whereas some teams might just come back in zone on us, (the Trojans) really try to establish pressure because they have very long, athletic, quick players on the defensive side,” Everist said. “They’re going to put pressure on you and try to make you make mistakes with the ball, not giving you clear windows.”

Upperclassmen such as junior center Nikolaos Papanikolaou and senior utility Jack Deely have pulled their weight, but expect the team’s freshmen to contribute as well. In its last nine games, Cal’s freshmen class has scored a sizable 35% of the teams’ points. While this is a great look for the Bears’ future, coach Everist is taking games one at a time.

“So far they’ve been pretty solid and consistent. … That bodes well for the future,” Everist said. “Right now we’re worried about USC, and my expectation is that they come out and are able to give us that presence on both sides of the pool.”

The Bears will only play one game this weekend, giving them plenty of time to focus on their No. 1 ranked foe. It’s time for the Bears to beat the best.

Justin Kim covers men’s basketball and men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].