Unstoppable, invincible: Bears claim crown at NCAA championships

Photo of Cal Men's Water Polo Team
Catharyn Hayne | KLC Fotos/Courtesy

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When the Cal men’s water polo team boarded the plane bound for Los Angeles on Thursday, it had no idea what it was getting itself into. The Bears were rested, focused and prepared to fight, but they certainly weren’t ready for the onslaught of emotions that would hit them by the end of the week.

Nonetheless, the best things in life come when you least expect it.

Southern California became Bear territory last weekend as the blue and gold shut down UCLA, 15-13, and USC, 13-12, to claim the 2021 NCAA championship title — their first since 2016. The victory was hard fought and well-earned.

“We were very, very focused and we knew we were ready,” said graduate student, 2-meter driver Nikos Delagrammatikas. “That’s a big thing, to believe in yourself and believe that you’re ready for the moment.”

The blue and gold were certainly ready for their moment to shine, as they headed into the semifinal match against UCLA with confidence. For most of the game, it was a back-and-forth affair until the fourth quarter, in which the Bears took the lead with two minutes left on the clock. Shortly after, a shot from UCLA junior attacker Tommy Gruwell tied the game up and sent both teams into extra pool time.

Steady under pressure, Cal mounted a comeback during double overtime, prevailing over UCLA 15-13. Junior center Nikolaos Papanikolaou — held down by the Bruins’ defenders for most of the game — managed to break free of their clutches, scoring twice in overtime. In the end, junior attacker Garrett Dunn sealed the victory for the blue and gold, shooting a shot into the cage with 19 seconds remaining.

“Our mindset was that it was like a final,” Papanikolaou said. “We definitely had to win it.”

The victory was well deserved, but Cal didn’t have too much time to celebrate, for there was another game — the championship match — the next day.

The first few minutes of the title match was rough, to say the least. The Trojans leapt ahead on the scoreboard from the start, with redshirt junior driver Hannes Daube and redshirt senior driver Jacob Mercep scoring back-to-back goals. However, the Bears were able to cut the deficit with a penalty goal from Casabella and a mesmerizing shot taken while underwater from sophomore center George Avakian.

“Title games are about who wants it more, and I know that we wanted it more than anything,” Delagrammatikas said.

Filled with high-quality plays from top-tier teams, the game saw five lead changes and countless jaw-dropping, mind-blowing plays.

Freshman attacker Max Casabella scored a total of four goals in the final and 10 goals throughout the tournament. Junior goalkeeper Adrian Weinberg finished with 15 saves, including one from a penalty shot taken by Mercep. Freshman attacker Roberto Valera stepped up as well, tallying three goals and one assist in his debut championship game.

The freshmen on the team came out to kill, carrying the blue and gold closer and closer to the finish line. But ultimately, it was the veterans that snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

With Delagrammatikas scoring the final goal — bringing the Bears up, 13-12 — and Papanikolaou making a field block with one second left on the clock, the NCAA title match was a picture-perfect ending to an almost picture-perfect season. The blue and gold were able to rise up from the ashes of their setbacks, which included an upset loss to Pepperdine and a 0-2 streak at the MPSF championships, and emerge as the last team standing at the NCAA championships.

“It’s very rewarding and emotional when everything just aligns and we win,” Delagrammatikas said. “We went through it all as a team. Ups and downs, highs and lows, and I was just at peace and happy.”

In addition to winning the NCAA championship title, Cal walked away with a number of individual accolades as well. Papanikolaou was awarded Most Valuable Player of the tournament; senior utility Jack Deely, Casabella and Weinberg were selected for the NCAA championship all-tournament first team; and Delagrammatikas was selected for the second team.

As the 2021 season comes to a close and as the trophy heads home to Berkeley, the Bears will be looking to hibernate and regroup before they embark on their quest for a consecutive title next fall.

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