Bears Suffer Another Narrow Defeat in Battle With Trojans

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Facing a five-point deficit in the third quarter, sophomore Luka Saponjic launched the ball from the perimeter almost immediately after the whistle had blown on a drawn ejection.

The shot flew right into the arms of USC goalkeeper Joel Dennerley, harmlessly becoming just another one of his nine blocks against the No. 4 Cal men's water polo team.

It was just one of many misses for the Bears on Saturday, as the offense stuttered its way to an 8-6 loss to the third-ranked Trojans at Spieker Aquatics Complex.

Whether it was after drawing ejections, on counterattacks or in set offenses, Cal simply struggled to put the ball in the cage, going scoreless in the opening quarter and falling behind 4-1 at halftime.

"Somebody needed to step up and make that play," Cal coach Kirk Everist said. "We had a lot of opportunities to make plays, and we just didn't do it."

Most of those opportunities came on the 11 exclusions the Bears drew, including three on USC junior Kyle Sterling to eject him from the game. Despite the numbers advantage, Cal only converted one of its seven first-half 6-on-5s, finishing with four man-up goals when the final whistle blew.

At other times, the offense swung between looking hesitant and looking rushed. Players went from sometimes taking one too many pump-fakes to not making a quick enough pass across the weak side of the pool.

"People have to shoot with confidence," senior co-captain Spencer Warden said. "Once they do, I think we'll be OK."

Cal appeared to gain momentum when Warden lobbed the ball the length of the pool in the last seconds of the third quarter to start his hat trick, skipping it into the cage after he picked off Dennerley's pass from half tank.

But after the Bears pulled within two at the beginning of the final period, the Trojans put away another pair of goals to build an 8-4 cushion with just under three minutes left in the game.

What made the lack of offensive output even more striking was the Bears' proficiency on their own end of the pool. Cal suffocated the Trojans in the two-meter set, where they limited Olympian center J.W. Krumpholz to just a single goal that came in the final quarter. The team also kept USC from scoring on all but one of its seven 6-on-5s.

Another positive for the Bears is that the team maintained its chemistry and was able to make a run after falling behind 6-1 midway through the third quarter.

"The guys really played for each other and picked each other up the whole day," Warden said. "There was no bad tension, and we need to move on from there and continue that the rest of the season."

A long season is still ahead, but this weekend's SoCal Invitational at UC Irvine is already looming. The Bears will have tuning up to do before they knock off any of the teams ranked above them in the tournament-top-ranked Stanford, No. 2 UCLA and the Trojans.

"We're not quite there yet, where ... we're surprised that we lost the game," Everist said. "That's not a knock on the team.

"There is a progression to things, and this is a team that's learning."


Contact Jack Wang at [email protected]

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