All the marbles: Cal travels to NCAA tournament with championship aspirations in tow

Photo of Cal women's water polo player
Caroline Lobel/Staff

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Cal is off to the big one. Following the conclusion of conference championship tournaments, the NCAA tournament bracket has been set. With California teams accounting for the first five of nine seeds in Ann Arbor this weekend, the Bears will travel across interstate lines to continue the season-long tradition of facing off against intrastate rivals. Cal will also be trying to claim its first NCAA championship in program history.

For the first time since 2019, Cal women’s water polo has made the big dance, one of many shakeups in a bracket that looked very different just a year ago.

For the first time in four years, the MPSF conference title does not belong to USC. Following an 11-9 win against the Trojans, Stanford took home first place and defied postseason projections. Cal was also in the mix of surprises, finally overcoming UCLA in a narrow 10-9 win to lock up third place in the conference. These shakeups bode well for the two Bay Area squads, placing them squarely in the mix for a championship run.

On one side of the bracket, Michigan, owner of this season’s Collegiate Water Polo Association title, is slotted as the sixth seed and set to play No. 3 Cal in the final game of the quarterfinals.

Fresno State, after making an appearance in last year’s tournament via its at-large game victory, has already locked in its position as seventh seed. Thanks to claiming the Golden Coast Conference over LMU, the Bulldogs will face off against second-seed USC on Friday.

After having a third-place finish in the MPSF tournament snatched by Cal, UCLA slides into the other side of the bracket as fourth seed and will go against a tough and persistent No. 5 UC Irvine.

East Coast team Wagner punched its ticket to face top-seeded Stanford after a win against Salem in the tournament’s lone play-in game, with a score of 15-9.

But do not expect the lower seeds to go lightly. As recently as last month, now lower-seeded UC Irvine pulled off a win against Cal. And in the case of this year’s Fresno State team, the Bulldogs have been able to keep up with the Trojans, Bears and Bruins. Each team in the field has proven its right to play for a national championship and — perhaps more excitingly — that anything can happen at Canham Natatorium.

How to make history

This NCAA tournament marks the first appearance in three years for the Bears. In 2019, Cal was able to advance to the semifinal game before losing against USC 8-10. In order to return to the semifinals and beyond, the blue and gold must first focus on taking advantage of their position as the third seed — the second-highest placement in program history.

At Michigan earlier in the season, the Bears were able to lean on their offense to pull away in the early stages of the second half. In the same pool this weekend, a repeat performance might be in order for a Cal team riding the high of a long-awaited win over UCLA. Goalie Isabel Williams was lights out against the Bruins, collecting All-MPSF tournament honors alongside senior attacker Emma Wright. The latter accounted for five goals against the Bruins, and in Wright’s final weekend as a Bear, she will have to be a huge part of Cal’s campaign in Michigan.

For success beyond holding the third seed, the Bears need to refocus on staying consistent. Though this task is easier said than done, Cal head coach Coralie Simmons has stressed throughout the season the importance of keeping the offense — and in turn the momentum — working in the team’s favor.

As the long season reaches its climax, will the Bears finally put their puzzle together and swim to history, or will the stacked tournament field sink them?

NCAA championship tournament quarterfinals begin May 6 at 12 p.m. and wrap up with the championship game May 8 at 1 p.m. Catch Cal round out the quarterfinals against Michigan on May 6 at 3 p.m. at Canham Natatorium or through NCAA.com.

Ryan Sheehan covers women’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].