Scoring Lulls Won't Fly in SoCal Invite

Photo: <b>Sophomore Luka Saponjic</b> scored a goal in his return to the Bears on Oct. 3 after missing the first 10 games with a shoulder injury.
Anna Hiatt/Staff
Sophomore Luka Saponjic scored a goal in his return to the Bears on Oct. 3 after missing the first 10 games with a shoulder injury.

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The past few weeks have been humbling for the Cal men's water polo team.

As they head down to the competitive SoCal Invitational at UC Irvine this weekend, the No. 4 Bears must try and shake the offensive lull that has followed them through losses in three of their last four games.

That dry spell comes after Cal (8-3, 0-1 in the MPSF) had reeled off seven straight wins to start the season -- a span in which it outscored opponents by an average of over 10 goals.

"We were undefeated, but we were unchallenged," two-meter set Zach White said. "And so we were a little cocky, I think, a little full of ourselves. I think we thought we were better than we really were."

The Bears' hot start was quickly doused once they started facing higher-ranked teams in the NorCal Invitational three weeks ago. Since the tournament began, Cal has lost twice to No. 3 USC -- both times by two points -- and to top-ranked Stanford by a goal.

But despite the bitter taste the near-misses left in their mouths, the Bears are hopeful that they have learned from their struggles.

"It's really those experiences that helps a lot of guys grow," White said. "We saw what we need to do in order to win those close games."

What they likely need to do is execute and finish plays. In all of its losses thus far, Cal has fallen into scoreless ruts. The Bears were able to create opportunities, either on counterattacks or on 6-on-5s, but they often lacked the aggression to put the ball in the cage.

"You're not going to score if you don't shoot," coach Kirk Everist said. "There are times when it's your shot and you just have to take it."

While Cal has yet to prove itself against other national title contenders, it will soon have more than enough opportunities to do so soon-the top 10 teams in the country are all scheduled to play in the SoCal Invitational.

If the Bears get past No. 13 Pacific and fifth-ranked Loyola Marymount on Saturday, they will almost certainly face still-undefeated Stanford. Cal has not beaten its cross-bay rival since 2007.

"I think we're looking for some revenge, to finally actually beat them in the regular season," White said. "It's getting old."

Traveling with its healthiest roster this season could help improve Cal's chances at knocking off the Cardinal. Sophomore Luka Saponjic has recently returned after missing the first 10 games with a shoulder injury. Although the shoulder isn't fully healed, the lefty is a strong shooter who adds an additional offensive option to spread opposing defenders.

"He's a guy that, when healthy, could be playing 20, 25, 26 minutes in a game," Everist said. "I think he felt good enough that we can ... maybe try to get him in half the game."


Contact Jack Wang at [email protected]

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