Bears' Postseason Hopes on the Line at MPSF Championship

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When the USC men's water polo team last lost at home, center J.W. Krumpholz was still a junior in high school. He hadn't yet led the No. 1 Trojans to an undefeated season, hadn't yet been named the nation's top player, hadn't yet won a silver medal in Beijing.

And with a 39-game winning streak at McDonald's Swim Stadium that stretches back to 2004, none of the roster's eight other seniors know how it feels to be beaten before their own Los Angeles crowd.

Unfortunately for No. 3 Cal (20-5, 6-2 in the MPSF), USC will again play host in this weekend's MPSF Championship. The Trojans (22-1, 8-0) have won four of the past six conference tournaments, claiming three national titles over that span.

The Bears' own streak of nine consecutive wins ended last Saturday as they dropped the annual Big Splash to No. 2 Stanford (20-2, 7-1). The 8-6 loss cast a shadow over Cal's shot at a 14th championship -- what would be its third in four years.

As the third seed, the Bears kick off the first round at 1:30 p.m. on Friday against sixth-seeded UC Irvine (15-11, 3-5), a team they defeated less than a month ago. But it's the potential semifinal match-up against Stanford a day later that holds greater implications for what's left of the season.

Only two teams from the MPSF will advance to the NCAA Championship in Princeton, N.J., next weekend -- an automatic berth given to the conference winner and another bid available at-large. Barely missing out on back-to-back undefeated seasons, USC's resume is strong enough that a trip to the East Coast is almost guaranteed.

The second spot is still up for grabs between Cal and Stanford. The Bears have already lost to the Cardinal twice in their three meetings this season; if they can split the season series, their chance at a ring may still be alive.

"From how I look at it ... the winner of that game will go to NCAAs," coach Kirk Everist said. "I could be wrong, I'm not in the room (when the bid is given), but it's the last game, it's at a neutral site ... I think the conference game is going to weigh more."

Added junior Brian Dudley: "That's huge. That's make or break. If we don't win that game, you can definitely count us out of the NCAA tournament."

To preserve its season, the Bears will have to avoid a repeat of their last game. Cal gave up six second-half goals after building a 4-2 lead, a letdown that the Cardinal capitalized on to win its fifth consecutive Big Splash.

"It's a collective effort, to be gunning for blood from the first whistle to the final whistle," Dudley said. "That's one thing we definitely have to work on, is just being absolutely thirsty for goals, thirsty for the victory and just wanting to crush our opponents from the first whistle to the last whistle."


Contact Jack Wang at [email protected]

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