Bears' Tear Wiped Away By Bruins in MPSF Defeat

Photo: Mike Sample was one of just two seniors on the Cal men's water polo team this season. The Bears lost to UCLA in the MPSF final, 10-7.
Victoria Chow/File
Mike Sample was one of just two seniors on the Cal men's water polo team this season. The Bears lost to UCLA in the MPSF final, 10-7.

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Last Saturday, Luka Saponjic's shot rang into Stanford's cage with just four seconds left. The mad scramble back from a five-goal halftime deficit was complete and, with a 12-11 overtime win, the Cal men's water polo team earned its place in the MPSF championship game. The stage couldn't have been more beautifully set for an NCAA tournament berth and a shot at a 14th national title.

All that stood in its way was UCLA.

But a day later, the Bears' championship hopes vanished, losing by three.

That was a microcosm of Cal's season: a powerful, cohesive machine punctuated by inexplicable inconsistency-lapses which resulted in maddeningly close losses.

It didn't matter that the No. 3 Bears (22-6, 6-2 in the MPSF) had pulled off one of the most dramatic comebacks in recent history, or that they had finished second in the tournament.

The NCAA Championship has just four open spots, a brutal structure that allows only two to advance from the MPSF-despite the conference holding eight of the nation's top 10 teams.

"It's so tight in this sport. It's so hard," coach Kirk Everist said. "I don't know if there's another sport in the NCAA that it's just so hard to just to get to the championship."

Things didn't look easy at the beginning of the season for a squad that returned just two seniors in captains Spencer Warden and Mike Sample. On a young roster, it took some time for the players to gel. After being plagued by scoring lulls earlier in the season, a light bulb went on for Cal in October's SoCal Invite as it won 12 of its next 13.

"One of our mottos established (then) was 'I got your back, you got my back.' Guys working for each other," junior Zach White said. "The games where we worked for each other, we were able to dominate teams."

Cal wasn't able to do it quite enough, as it occasionally strayed from its unit to play as individuals-stifling the flow of the offense and often digging holes too deep to climb out of. In many of their losses, including three against No. 1 USC by two goals or fewer, the Bears were forced to play catch-up.

Still, the Bears reaffirmed their place in the upper echelon of the sport. They placed three players on All-MPSF teams-Warden, White and leading scorer Ivan Rackov-while building the chemistry they didn't show last year.

In nine months, the team will begin another run at the title-this time without Warden, who will almost certainly be named to his fourth All-American team. The versatile attacker led the Bears in steals since his first season, good for a career total of over 240. Warden will likely head to Europe after he graduates to play professionally.

The hole won't be easy to fill, but the Bears hope the games they saw this season will pay dividends in the next.

"You hope you learn from it and it stokes the fire a little bit," Everist said.


Contact Jack Wang at [email protected]

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