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Back-to-back champs: Cal comes back to defeat USC 13-12

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DECEMBER 06, 2022

In a game that seemed to be heading in the wrong direction, Cal was able to make a 5-point comeback in the last six minutes of the game to win the national championship 13-12 for the second year in a row. 

This final game was one for the books as multiple records were broken. Cal remains the school with the most collegiate national titles at 16, and senior Nikolaos Papanikolaou has booted head coach Kirk Everist out of Cal’s top-scorers list, becoming the fifth top scorer in Cal history with 210 goals. 

“First, I would like to recognize this guy (Papanikolaou),” Everist said. “He’s been telling me all year that he was gonna knock me out of the program … He did it during that game and looked at me at the end and went ‘you’re out.’” 

The weekend started out strong and in good spirits with a 16-9 win against the University of the Pacific, launching the Bears into the final championship Sunday. 

Pacific could just not find the looks it needed in order to make it to the finals. When the opposing team shot, goalkeeper Adrian Weinberg was there to stop them, and if not him, then field blocks or the shrinking windows that the Bears’ defense created were able to keep them out. 

“That was the key at the beginning of the game that allowed us to get a bit of distance and to be able to just keep pushing, play confident and have them look hard to get the good looks they were getting,” Everist said. “Pays off in the end making them work hard late in the game.” 

Cal made USC work just as hard in the last quarter of the final game Sunday. 

To come out on top and win against the same team with the same score for the second year in a row was something akin to incredible for the fans.  

The Bears seemed to have been struggling the first three quarters; they were able to keep the point differential at a max of 4 points — but even then, fans and the team were nervous regarding the game ahead.

“When we were down by 3, I was thinking we’ve come back from three goals before, and then we go down 4, it’s a little bit different,” said senior Jack Deely. “You are looking at 12-8 but you really just have to take it one possession at a time.” 

Something Deely, Papanikolaou and Everist could agree on was that the crowd was what brought them back into the game. After the defense began to push USC into the deep end, the crowd could sense that there was going to be an exciting turnaround. 

The Bears not only delivered that exciting turnaround, but could not picture a game more exciting than this one to end their season. 

“I think I would choose this one and the way we came back in the game,” Papanikolaou said. “They showed us their best, but it’s a repeat too so we already had a target on our backs the whole season and you know it’s more hard to stay on top and we did.” 

The icing on the cake for this game was the performance that Papanikolaou delivered. When asked where Papanikolaou ranked in players of all time at Cal, Deely mentioned:  “top two, and he’s not two.”

During this game, Papanikolaou scored seven goals, tying his all-time record. Papanikolaou is the definition of a utility player that, as a center, serves in every facet of the game. Additionally, he was awarded the most valuable player of the NCAA Championship for the second year in a row and it is clear that his coaches and teammates agree with the sentiment. 

“If I had to pick a team I would definitely pick him first,” Everist said. “He’s one of the best players that I’ve ever seen play at this level and internationally. To have this mentality where they just take it … He just keeps going play, play, play and doesn’t get caught up in things that he can’t control, and that makes him special.”

Stefania Bitton covers men's water polo. Contact her at [email protected].

DECEMBER 06, 2022