After an impressive performance at the MPSF tournament, Cal women’s water polo fell short of expectations at the NCAA tournament. Coming in as the No. 3 seed, the Bears were upset by sixth-seeded Princeton in the quarterfinals, 11-9.
Friday’s season-ending performance was a stark contrast to the highs seen at the end of the MPSF tournament just a couple of weeks prior. After dropping a tough game to USC in the semifinals, the Bears earned third place with a big 12-11 win over longtime rival UCLA. This performance was enough for the NCAA to award Cal the No. 3 at-large seed in the 2023 championship tournament, hosted at the University of the Pacific.
Although momentum was certainly on Cal’s side heading into its first matchup of the NCAA bracket, everything seemed to change once the Bears entered the pool in Stockton.
Sixth-seeded Princeton entered its quarterfinal game against Cal as the apparent underdog. But by the end of the second period, the tables had turned. Guided by an explosive start on offense, the Tigers jumped out to a commanding 6-3 lead heading into the second half. Princeton’s Kate Mallery and Rachael Carver were key contributors to the Tiger’s attack, recording a hat trick apiece.
Offensive woes kept the Bears out of the Princeton net far too often. Sophomore Rozanne Voorvelt led the way for Cal with a hat trick of her own. Despite an impressive four-goal third quarter from the Bears to cut the lead to one heading into the final period, Cal was unable to keep pace with the Tigers. Princeton again pulled away again in the fourth quarter to secure a two-goal margin of victory, putting an abrupt end to a promising Cal tournament run before it could even start.
This loss is stunning in many ways. At the time of the match, Cal was ranked third in the country while Princeton was number eight, making for the biggest upset of the tournament. And given the history of Cal head coach Coralie Simmons’ career, Friday’s loss could sting even more: This marks the first year in nine NCAA championship bracket appearances in which the Bears failed to advance to the semifinal round.
With Cal’s offseason starting unexpectedly early, the rest of the NCAA bracket continued on without a perennial member of its final four. In the semifinals, Princeton was bounced by second-seeded USC, 18-8. Top-seeded Stanford continued its dominant run with a 14-9 win over UCLA.
In the final, Stanford secured its second straight NCAA championship with an 11-9 win over the Trojans — its eighth national championship since 2011. The Cardinal and Trojans have held a duopoly on the championship trophy for more than a decade, splitting the wealth eight titles to five, respectively, since 2010.
Cal’s 2023 season certainly had its ups and downs. And though the Bears certainly remain a marquee team in the talent-stacked state of California, being one-and-done in the NCAA is certainly a notable departure from the standard of success Cal faithful have come to be familiar with in the pool.
Despite the disappointment, this year had its points to build from, including multiple wins against UCLA. Looking ahead, the Bears look to be just as competitive for a championship come the start of the 2023-24 season.