The Cal men’s water polo team, coming off a season of only two losses and a second consecutive National Championship, will continue its Southern California season as it faces off against Navy on Sept 4.
With both teams competing in the Triton Invitational held in San Diego on Sept. 2 and 3, the game against Navy will be played at nearby Coronado High School, about 19 miles from UC San Diego’s Canyonview Aquatic Center, where the tournament will take place.
The blue and gold have already received national recognition prior to their first game of 2023, as the team was voted highest ranked team on multiple polls, including the Collegiate Water Polo Association, or CWPA, and Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, or MPSF, coaches poll.
Meanwhile, Navy is coming off a season in which it barely earned a record over .500, scraping to an overall 16-15.
This contest marks the first time since the 2007 Men’s Water Polo Championship semifinals, where both teams will play against each other at a neutral site. Every other game, besides a 2014 matchup in Berkeley, has been played in Annapolis.
The two sides have faced off nine times — Cal has defeated Navy in every match played, including the most recent matchup, a 24-8 Bears victory to champion the Navy Open.
In the 2022 contest, Joe Molina and Nik Mirkovic, now a sophomore, led the charge, each piling up four goals. That remains the most goals Mirkovic has scored in a single game.
Although juniors Max Casabella and Roberto Valera, who scored 61 and 54 goals last year respectively, will have high expectations this season, the spotlight will be on senior Nikolaos Papanikolaou.
Honored with the Cutino award, given to the highest performing collegiate water polo players, for the second time this past offseason, Papanikolaou’s feat has been accomplished by no other Cal player in history. Papanikolaou enters his last season for Cal as the reigning NCAA Championship Most Valuable Player for the second straight season and Player of the Year for both the Association of Collegiate Water Polo Coaches, or ACWPC, and MPSF with a placement onto the ACWPC All-America First Team.
Papanikolaou’s honors speak volumes, but his accomplishments in the water are also significant. Not only did he lead the team in scoring, with a total of 62, bumping him up to fifth overall on Cal’s all time scoring list, but he also led the team in drawing exclusions and blocks.
He is third on the leaderboard for goals scored per game in the MPSF.
The loss of former captain Jake Altmayer, who led the team in steals and assists while scoring the second most goals last season, will leave Navy with a gap to fill. Navy will look to snap Cal’s streak by sending in its core composed of senior Travis Berzins, as well as juniors Michael Heller and Tommy McKnew.
Heller and McKnew ranked first and third for goals scored last season, while Berzins ranked fourth on the team. Heller also led the team in shots taken, while scoring the second-most goals in a single game last season — racking up six goals against Gannon on Oct. 8.
The last time Cal met Navy, McKnew scored two goals while Heller provided one.
Navy will most likely utilize its starting goalie senior Caden Capobianco, who appeared in 28 games last season. It is possible that Cal head coach Kirk Everist will send out either his usual starter, senior Adrian Weinberg, or senior Xavier Casabella, who only played in eight games last season — including the game against Navy, where he made 10 saves.
The Bears continue their stay in Southern California after Monday’s game, heading up to Los Angeles to play USC on Sept. 9 and Pepperdine on Sept. 10.