Ready, set, splash. The sky, painted a pigeon gray with occasional streaks of golden rays, cast ominous shadows on the waters of Spieker Aquatics Complex.
Tension hung high in the air as the Cal and Stanford mens’ water polo teams lined up beside their respective goals, bodies tense, game faces on and waiting for the horn that would signal the start of the Big Splash.
Coming out of a week without any matches, the blue and gold found themselves struggling to focus at first, but they managed to regain their footing, executing brilliant plays across the pool before trailblazing to victory in double overtime.
“I literally didn’t care how well I was doing. I just wanted to win,” said junior goalkeeper Adrian Weinberg. “This whole game was about tradition and the importance of being a Golden Bear.”
The Bears had planned to shut down Stanford’s offensive plays by directing the ball to places they were comfortable defending from, but their expectations were quite different from the reality they faced.
It was a shootout from the start, and Cal was unable to finish many defensive possessions, with Stanford senior driver Quinn Woodhead depositing a shot into the goal just 48 seconds into the game. Redshirt senior 2-meter driver Parker Killion also hammered at the Bears’ defense, scoring two of his three goals before halftime.
Although they had trouble protecting the cage at first, the Bears were dominant on the offensive end. Junior center Nikolaos Papanikolaou and senior utility Jack Deely led the Bears with three goals each. Redshirt senior attacker Miles O’Brien-Schridde followed with two goals and one assist, and freshman attacker Roberto Valera had one goal and three assists.
“In the second half of the game, we were way better at closing down the defense and helping our goalie,” said graduate student Nikos Delagrammatikas. “That built off in the defensive performance.”
As the end of the game neared, Cal finally found its footing on defense, and Weinberg stunned the crowd with three consecutive saves on three offensive possessions. The cheers grew louder and louder with each passing second as the blue and gold closed the fractures in their defense.
“I just didn’t want them to score,” Weinberg said. “I was thinking, ‘I have to stop the ball, or it’s over. … This is my goal. I can’t let it go in.’ ”
Going into overtime, it was evident that the blue and gold still had plenty of energy to spare.
The shouts from the stands became thunderous and helped the Bears gain momentum as they played with even more passion than before.
“Max Casabella’s goal helped us lead 12-10, and it was the point where we realized that we were going to win this game,” Papanikolaou said. “I saw my teammate Jack Deely, and we just shouted at each other and high-fived, and it was a great moment.”
The No. 1 Bears may have won the Big Splash, but they can’t let their guard down just yet, for there is another old rival waiting with scores to settle: No. 3 UCLA.
After falling to the blue and gold at the MPSF Invitational in September, the Bruins will be looking to redeem themselves on Golden Bear territory. Not only will this be senior day for the Bears, but it will also determine the winners of the MPSF regular-season championship.
If Cal wants to take home the gold this week, it needs to sharpen its competitive mindset and stay engaged right from the onset.
“We always expect to win, we want to win and we believe this team can win a national championship,” Papanikolaou said.
From sparring under the sun to roaring in the rain, the Bears have rallied together to emerge triumphant in 19 games in the past two months. As they approach the closing stretch of their time together this fall, the blue and gold are looking for one more win to close out their regular season in true Golden Bear fashion.
For some, this game will be their last time hunting at home. For others, it will be the finale of their opening season at Cal. And with the MPSF championships barely a week away, much will be at stake in the water Saturday.