Bears Host NCAA Tournament for First Time in History

Photo: Junior Ivan Rackov leads the Bears in goals scored, with 75, and has the highest average goals per game (3.00) in the conference.
Emma Lantos/File
Junior Ivan Rackov leads the Bears in goals scored, with 75, and has the highest average goals per game (3.00) in the conference.

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Men's Water Polo NCAA Championships
Men's Water Polo NCAA Championships

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The smallest details can add up to the big difference between a national champion and an also-ran.

Luckily for the Cal men's water polo team (23-3), that distinction will be made at its home pool in Spieker Aquatics Complex for the first time in NCAA history this weekend.

"This venue has seen a lot of great water polo games collegiately over the years, so it's a natural fit for this championship to be played here," coach Kirk Everist said. "We're all excited about being able to host a championship here and to be in it is even more special."

Cal already defeated No. 3 Loyola Marymount (19-8), Saturday's 3 p.m. adversary, 11-2 on Nov. 4.

While the Lions were missing one of their leading scorers in Tibor Forai, their star goalie Andy Stevens, the national team backup, helped keep them down just 3-2 at halftime.

"They tend to defensively play to (Stevens), they're going to force you to beat him from the outside because they feel like they have an advantage in the cage," Everist said. "They trust that he can stop most shooters, we're going to have to be real patient."

Additionally, the Lions used subs quite liberally then. It was a Thursday game and they rested starters for two upcoming conference games.

The outcome of the game against LMU determines whether the Bears will play at 3 p.m. the next day in the championship game or in the consolation match at 1 p.m.

Their opponent on Sunday will be either No. 1 USC (26-2) or No. 4 St. Francis (24-3), who play Saturday at 1 p.m.

No school outside of California has ever made it to the NCAA championship game.

Cal traded matches with the Trojans, sinking at home 12-11 on Sept. 19 and avenging the loss 12-9 on Oct. 16. USC is the only team to beat the Bears in their lair this season.

The Trojans laid claim to the last two titles while Cal went all the way the two seasons prior.

"We're always battling," Everist said. "USC has done a great job this year replacing a team that lost a lot of great players. They're right back in the championship."

USC's goalie Joel Dennerley always makes the cage seem smaller for his opponents. The MPSF Player of the Year averages about seven and a half saves a game and is only the second goalie to ever earn the title.

While Dennerley holds down the block on defense, it's hard to credit the Trojans' offense to one source. Their balanced offense is precisely what makes them so hard to defend; no one player averages even two goals per game, with leading scorer Nikola Vavic ranked 13th in the MPSF.


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

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