Rain: What began as a drizzle gradually grew into a steady shower as the gleam of the stadium lights starkly contrasted with a solemn sky. The wind howled, the bleachers shook and the pool steamed with anticipation as the Bears and Tigers circled one other, two apex predators prepared to fight.
The Cal men’s water polo team barely defeated Princeton a few weeks prior at the Navy Open in Maryland. The two’s meeting was full of twists and turns once again as Princeton leapt ahead on the scoreboard multiple times. However, the blue and gold were able to recover from their sluggish state and eventually emerged triumphant, claiming a 15-11 victory.
In the beginning, Cal wasn’t expecting Princeton to put up a battle; while the Tigers went into the game with fangs bared and claws outstretched, the Bears found themselves a bit passive and slow to react. They were ranked No. 2 in the nation, after all, and they took down two No. 1 teams in the past few weeks. Surely a team that was ranked No. 12 wouldn’t be able to leave a single scratch on them, right?
Wrong. The Bears were very relaxed going into the game, but they had clearly underestimated Princeton. For what the Tigers were lacking in talent, they made up for with incredible discipline, consistently maintaining high levels of concentration and fully taking advantage of each offensive possession.
It was readily apparent that the Bears encountered a considerable amount of defensive miscommunication. Coming off of a tiring first half of the season, they found themselves struggling to stay afloat with each possession, often leaving vacant spots in their defense for the Tigers to strike and score.
Sophomore center George Caras led the charge for the Tigers with three goals while junior attacker Keller Maloney, senior utility Mitchell Cooper and junior utility Joan Coloma scored two goals each.
“It should have been a more controlled game, but we didn’t show up at that, so that’s why the game got super scrappy early on,” said Cal graduate student Nikos Delagrammatikas. “We got ourselves through the game by fighting our way through it.”
The Bears were able to find their footing by the end of the second period, regaining the lead at 8-6. They picked up their defense and were able to finish multiple defensive possessions while junior goalkeeper Adrian Weinberg kept the Tigers in check with seven saves and three steals.
“In the last quarter, most of our defensive plays were very well executed, very well communicated.” Delagrammatikas said. “Princeton was doing the same thing (defensive plays) during the game, but they were not effective because we finally decided that we were going to communicate.”
Once again, the key to victory for the blue and gold was in their communication as they began racking up numerous offensive opportunities after the first quarter.
Freshman attacker Roberto Valera was the star scorer for the Bears, finishing the game with six goals and one assist. Building off of a rocky start in the first quarter, he was able to shake off his mistakes with maturity. In the second half of the game, Valera tore the Tigers’ defense to pieces, scoring five goals on six shots.
“I’m proud of it (scoring six goals),” Valera said. “I have to start better (from now on). I can’t relax at the beginning and then play good only in the second half.”
Junior attacker Garrett Dunn also established himself as a total threat on the offensive end with two goals and three assists. Sitting out for most of the game, junior center Nikolaos Papanikolaou dived into play at the end of the fourth quarter and scored the 15th goal for the Bears with one second to spare.
“I expected that (it was going to be easy), before the game,” Valera said. “It was a mistake.”
The Tigers displayed a valiant effort, and the echo of their roars were heard around the pool. But as the dreary drizzle turned into torrents of rain, they headed home empty-handed. After all, they were in bear territory — and the Bears had proved themselves to be apex predators once again.
Yuqing Qiu covers men’s water polo. Contact her at [email protected].