Anteaters, Aggies Present Potential Pitfalls for No. 2 Bears

Photo: Sophomore Charlie Steffens has compiled 16 goals and 32 assists in 18 games, ranking fifth and second on the team in those categories.
Victoria Chow/File
Sophomore Charlie Steffens has compiled 16 goals and 32 assists in 18 games, ranking fifth and second on the team in those categories.

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Ivan Rackov held up a finger in celebration after lobbing a five-meter penalty shot in a three-minute, sudden-death scrimmage, ending the late-practice drill after just two possessions.

If the Cal men's water polo team isn't careful, its national championship hopes could end just as quickly.

The No. 2 Bears (14-4, 2-1 in the MPSF) continue their slate of conference games as seventh-ranked UC Irvine rolls into Spieker Aquatics Complex tomorrow at 12 p.m.

The match against the Anteaters (13-6, 1-1) is another in a string of games against lower-ranked teams, but even one loss would be costly. With only two of the four NCAA tournament berths up for grabs-one of which is guaranteed to the MPSF champion-Cal needs to build a strong resume for a shot at the at-large bid before the Big Splash at Stanford and the conference championships.

"These next couple weeks are probably the most difficult in our season, to be honest," senior co-captain Mike Sample said. "More difficult than Big Splash, more difficult than MPSFs. This is where you're playing against teams that aren't as good as us, but that in a way can be even harder. You really have to maintain that focus."

Although the Bears have won six of their last seven games-a stretch that included an impressive 7-6 road victory over No. 4 UCLA-they haven't been able to play at their peak through an entire game, at times having to pull away late or fend off comebacks.

"We just need to not have those dips in our games," coach Kirk Everist said. "When we're going to play an 'SC or a Stanford or a UCLA, we've got to be pretty darn consistent I don't know if we've put together four complete quarters in a game."

That consistency could come as younger players-such as redshirt freshmen Spencer White and Mason Cox-continue to mature. Many of them have taken advantage of big minutes with starters suffering various ailments throughout the season. Most recently, junior Zach White and sophomore Cory Nasoff both sat out the SoCal Invitational championship match against top-ranked USC with concussions.

"If we get into a pinch and we have to go to our bench deeper, I'm pretty comfortable with the guys," Everist said. "We've had so many injuries this year, we've had a pretty good opportunity to see a lot of players."

Cal will follow up Saturday's match with a nonconference trip to No. 16 UC Davis (12-12), which it defeated, 12-4, in the September home opener at Spieker. The Bears aren't about to let any wins get to their heads, however.

"We've been able to handle a lot of adversity but we still need to make a statement and we still really aren't anything yet," Sample said. "We haven't beaten 'SC, haven't really done anything yet.

"When we win NCAAs, we'll be happy. Not until then."

Tags: CAL MEN'S WATER POLO, KIRK EVERIST, SPENCER WARDEN, UC IRVINE


Contact Jack Wang at [email protected]



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