Bears Earn At-Large Berth in NCAAs Despite Third-Place Tournament Finish

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Bad news for Cal: USC earned the guaranteed spot in the NCAA Championship with their first-place finish in the MPSF conference tournament.

Good news for Cal: USC earned the guaranteed spot in the NCAA Championship with their first-place finish in the MPSF conference tournament.

Your eyes don't deceive you.

The Trojans are the only other MPSF men's water polo team with a record competitive with the Bears'. Had they lost in the tournament final at Avery Aquatics Center in Stanford, Calif., Cal (23-3, 8-0 in the MPSF) would have had some competition for the at-large berth in the NCAAs.

Instead, the Bears' title hunt will continue with a Saturday match against Loyola Marymount.

This hypothetical situation was not so far-fetched. The Trojans (26-2, 6-2) went down to the wire against Stanford as neither team scored in overtime; USC finally ended it in the second of two sudden-death periods on a goal by Nikola Vavic with 2:04 left.

"The guys there were nervous; there was a lot of pacing," Cal coach Kirk Everist said. "The guys have worked really hard over a year and want a chance to play for a championship.

"They're going to get that chance, they're getting rewarded for their hard work."

The Cardinal (15-8, 5-3) stumped the Bears 8-6 in the semifinals on Saturday despite never beating Cal in three tries during the season.

At some points, goalie Justin Parsons was the only factor keeping it close for the Bears.

"That can happen, you're so close to getting to where you want to go and play for a championship, you can get tight," Everist said. "It was all around, the coaching staff and the players, none of us had a very good day."

Cal tied it up at 6-6 on a goal by junior Charlie Steffens at 5:15 left in the fourth, but could not counter the Cardinal's next two.

Stanford's Sage Wright capitalized on the power play with 3:29 remaining before Jacob Smith converted on the five-meter penalty shot at 1:44 to seal the deal at 8-6.

The Cardinal concentrated their defense inside, collapsing on center Zach White who was in foul trouble and uncharacteristically wasn't able to score.

"We were pushing it inside when it wasn't there," Everist said. "We needed to trust our outside shooters and force them to come out on it but we were forcing it inside."

The Bears did, however, edge out UCLA 10-9 in the match for third place.

Junior Ivan Rackov tallied a phenomenal five goals, four of which came early to give Cal a 6-2 advantage.

The Bears then had a lapse, allowing the Bruins to counter their way back into the contest and tie it up at 6-6.

After the score was again tied at 7-7, Cal pulled away on goals by Steffens and senior Brian Dudley for a 9-7 cushion with 4:31 left in the match.

UCLA got close again at 9-8 but Rackov quickly put an end to that with a steal on defense and a goal at the other end with two and a half minutes to go.


Byron Atashian covers men's water polo. Contact him at [email protected]

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