2021. 2022. The past two seasons for Cal men’s water polo started off with a 5-0 record, then both seasons ended with national championships.
Now in 2023, it is possible to repeat the pattern. Following a 4-0 start to its season after hurdling over their opponents at the Triton Invitational, including nationally ranked teams in No. 7 UC Santa Barbara and host No.11 UC San Diego, Cal extended its win streak to five games — stomping past Navy, 18-6.
Three players — senior Nikoloas Papanikolaou, junior Robert Valera and sophomore Albert Pnferrada — all scored hat tricks. Monday’s game marked Valera’s third hat trick of the season, which capped a weekend that saw 10 goals and 15 assists. His weekend stats earned him his first conference weekly honor as the Player of the Week by the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.
Despite the final score, Navy remained competitive throughout the entire game, shooting 13 shots on goal, but Cal goalies Adrian Weinberg and Kai Seed came through with blocks.
“Navy didn’t stop showing their presence the entire game,” Weinberg said. “We won the game but they were locked in on us.”
Monday’s win means Cal extends its winning streak against Navy to a perfect 10-0 record, dating back to 2006 when the two sides first met.
Following a brief four-day break, the Bears head back down to Southern California to face off against No. 2 USC on Saturday, Sept. 9 and against Pepperdine on Sept. 10. Like Cal, both teams currently hold a perfect record, with the Trojans also beating all their opponents at the Triton Invitational.
Although the Trojans’ last win against Cal dates back to November 2021, both Papanikolau and Weinberg do not hesitate to label USC as “rivals.”
“USC is always a fun opponent to play,” Papanikolaou said. “They were the team we played the last game of the season against two years in a row and they made us work for those championships.”
The 2020 tournament semifinals, which ended with the Bears falling 12-10 to the Trojans, left a sour taste in Papanikolaou’s mouth — that gives him a special drive to beat USC whenever he plays against them.
“Even though they didn’t beat us last year, every game we play against them is a long battle,” Papanikolaou said. “They beat us twice in 2021, but (the) 2020 semifinals left a mark [because] if we beat them, we could’ve fought for the national championship.”
Following Saturday’s game in Los Angeles, Cal will travel northwest to Malibu where Pepperdine will be waiting for a rematch of last year’s match that ended with a Cal 17-12 victory.
Despite facing a team that has held a season record around .500 every year since 2020, both Papanikolaou and Weinberg admit the team is not changing their aggressive game strategy, though wary of the upset Pepperdine pulled in 2021.
Cal, at the time, was ranked No. 2 in the nation and would go on to win the national title. Pepperdine struggled to finish the 2021 season one game above .500.
As a result of underestimating the Waves, the blue and gold struggled to capitalize on the limited momentous plays they developed during four quarters and ultimately lost 16-14 in front of a crowd of 315 fans.
“We have to go in and practically destroy them every chance we get,” Weinberg said. “We went in with the mentality (in 2021) that (the game) would be an easy win and ended up getting embarrassed.”
Sunday will also mark junior Jake Howerton’s return to Malibu, where he spent his freshman year playing for Pepperdine.