Into the final stretch: Bears head to Southern CA for NCAA championships

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Can Jozef Saul/Staff

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As the saying goes, keep calm and carry on. There are good days and bad days, and the Cal men’s water polo team certainly has had its fair share of both this season.

After experiencing surprising victories and upsetting losses, all eyes are on the Bears as they barrel full speed into the finale of their postseason expedition: the NCAA championships. After an 0-2 run at the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Championships in Palo Alto two weeks ago, the Bears will be looking to redeem themselves — and snatch the big prize — at Spieker Aquatics Center in Los Angeles.

Although they placed fourth at the MPSF Championships, the blue and gold’s 4-0 streak during the MPSF regular season helped them secure a bid as the second-seeded team going into the NCAA championships. With this being the second consecutive year Cal has made it to the national stage, the Bears are looking to leave their bad days behind them and tread their way to the top.

This year, the national championships will be full of old friends and rivals alike. Two other MPSF conference teams will make a showing: UCLA and USC, with the Trojans taking the spot of the top seed in this tournament. Other teams that made it to the quarterfinals are Princeton, Long Beach State and UC Davis.

The Bears, at the top of the NCAA bracket, will face off against UCLA — the victor of its quarterfinal match against Princeton. The Bears defeated the Bruins twice in the regular season, but they shouldn’t let their guard down given that their opponent boasts a postseason conference championship title.

The blue and gold have their work cut out for them this weekend in Los Angeles. They will want to put up a fight; in order to do so, they need to make some improvements to recover from their losing streak back in Palo Alto.

Communication has always been a deciding factor in the Bears’ success. There was a lack of it when they played at the MPSF Championships. There were multiple instances where, if the blue and gold had reached out to one another, they would have been able to turn the tide.

Cal will need to find the communication it had during the regular season if it wants to have a shot at grabbing the gold.

“If we come together cohesively as one front, we have a fantastic shot of winning the championship,” said redshirt senior attacker Miles O’Brien Schridde.

In addition, the Bears will want to concentrate on finishing defensive possessions, something that could use improvement after their performance at the MPSF Championships. Teamwork will play a huge factor in whether they can successfully guard the cage. The blue and gold need to sync up again before they play Saturday.

“We need to keep working on our zone defense, keep helping each other and keep communicating,” said Cal’s 2-meter driver, graduate student Nikos Delagrammatikas. “Those two things are going to get us very far.”

If the Bears can close down on defensive possessions and successfully fend off attacks from the opposing team, then the offense will take care of itself.

In the bottom half of the bracket, USC will have to play against UC Davis in the semifinals. Both teams are forces to be reckoned with, but Cal will have to emerge victorious against the Bruins before it can start thinking about its next steps in the championships.

As the fight for the collegiate crown commences, the Bears will bring their best into the pool to face off against the finest in the nation. Heading into the final stretch of 2021 — and the season finale — they are prepared to give everything they have in order to stun the crowd one last time.

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