Bears secure success over UCSB, set sights on Princeton

photo of Cal men's water polo
Can Jozef Saul/Staff

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It’s comeback season.

On Oct. 17, the Cal men’s water polo team came back home to rallying fans for the first time in two weeks, as it braced itself to jump feet-first into its game against the UCSB Gauchos.

“We were very excited,” said Cal senior attacker Jack Deely. “We love playing at home, and I think Spieker’s the best place to play in the entire country.”

This homecoming game proved to be no picnic for Cal. Cries from the stands crescendoed with each possession as UCSB kept a steady lead for three-fourths of the game. However, the Gauchos had nothing on the Bears as the latter came back from a score of 8-12 in the final quarter, closing off the game with a 14-13 victory.

A slight breeze was blowing and the skies were sunny, but the excitement from the Bears’ fans was somewhat subdued when UCSB took on an early lead. Just 17 seconds into the game, junior attacker Sam Nangle scored a goal with even strength.

Although they didn’t have much trouble scoring, the blue and gold struggled to finish defensive possessions throughout the first half. The Gauchos scored with speed right from the onset, racking up an impressive twelve goals before halftime.

UCSB senior attacker Sawyer Rhodes established his presence by contributing to five goals throughout the game, and senior driver Nathan Puentes wasn’t far behind after boasting three goals under his belt.

After halftime, both teams picked up their defense, playing with even more intensity. Thirteen shots were taken, but Cal freshman attacker and MPSF Newcomer of the Week Max Casabella scored the only goal in the third period. Junior goalkeeper Adrian Weinberg was able to keep the Gauchos’ attackers at bay, blocking shots with strength and absolute confidence.

In the final quarter, Deely scored on a power play and junior center Nikolaos Papanikolaou followed suit with his sixth goal of the game, bringing the score to 10-12. A turning point came for Cal when Casabella sent a shot sailing through the cage with 4:50 left in the game. From that point on, it was a killing spree for the Bears.

The stomping and cheering from the fans in the stands were deafening as the Bears, led by Papanikolaou and Weinberg, mounted a dominating comeback. Junior attackers Garrett Dunn and Jake Stone took turns battering the Gauchos’ defense while Weinberg clamped down the cage on Cal’s end of the pool, making six saves in the final quarter.

“Adrian Weinberg is just an absolute freak,” Deely said. “He’s such a good athlete in the cage. … A lot of this game is credited to him.”

The victory against the Gauchos was well sought and well earned, but the Bears don’t have much time to rest following Sunday’s success. On Wednesday, they will face off against Princeton.

The Tigers are an extremely well-coached and disciplined team, and although they are ranked No. 12, they’ve certainly made their mark in collegiate water polo with triumphs over Pepperdine and UC Irvine. They will be looking to display dominance in Berkeley after Monday’s loss in Stockton against No. 7 UOP.

“We beat them by only two (points) earlier in the season, and it’s not going to be a walk in the park at all,” Deely said. “They’re really good.”

In their previous faceoff at the Navy Open in Maryland, the Bears — fighting jet lag and playing at what would have been 5 a.m. on the Pacific coast — squeaked by with a narrow 11-9 win.

This time around, the Tigers will be the team playing in a foreign time zone. Still, Cal must maximize its home advantage and adjust to Princeton’s offensive plays in a timely manner if it wants to continue its success.

The blue and gold will also need to work on their communication and ability to anticipate situations before they occur.

“Princeton played really tough last time,” said head coach Kirk Everist. “They’ve got a … really strong goalie and they’ve got some players that can shoot and get up and down the pool.”

Threats to the Bears’ defense include junior attacker Keller Maloney and freshman utility Roko Pozaric. Junior goalkeeper Antonio Knez is expected to hold down the cage for the Tigers as well. In addition, most of the players on Princeton’s active roster have experience competing at an international level, so the Bears will have to tread carefully if they want to excel.

With one team rebounding off of a victory and the other shaking off defeat, both the Bears and the Tigers will be ready to roar in their second head-to-head game of the season Wednesday.

Yuqing Qiu covers men’s water polo. Contact her at [email protected].