Bears Close to Elusive NCAA Berth

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In yesterday's Mountain Pacific Sports Federation championship match, the Cal men's water polo team looked like it was finally going to shake a monkey off its back.

But UCLA didn't win last year's NCAA championship for nothing. And the Bruins certainly didn't trounce the Bears in the teams' previous three meetings this season to let it all slip away when it counted the most.

Unfortunately, with an automatic berth in the NCAA final four on the line, Cal couldn't stop UCLA from completing its season shutout of the Bears. And although Cal did come much closer to toppling UCLA than in the previous matches, the Bears (16-9) still wound up with the short end of the stick in last night's 6-5 decision in Los Alamitos, Calif.

"I just thought the tournament was a reflection of the whole season," Bears coach Peter Asch said. "I thought both teams played very well, and it's a shame that one of them had to lose. It was a high-end, toe-to-toe affair."

With the win the Bruins (21-3) join Navy and UC San Diego in the final four. There is still an at-large berth that will be awarded early this week.

Cal earned its championship spot after defeating No. 1 UC Irvine, 9-7, and No. 5 Long Beach State, 10-6. Since Irvine dropped decisions to both the Bears and Pepperdine and No. 3 USC fell to Pepperdine as well, there is a good chance that Cal will claim the at-large bid and make its first NCAA appearance since 1995.

"I think any of the teams deserve a berth," Asch said. "Any one of the teams from our conference would be a good representative."

The Bears had UCLA on the ropes entering the second half, but saw their 3-2 advantage wash up after the Bruins scored three consecutive goals. Two scores came from Brian Brown, who scored four of UCLA's six points.

The Bruins held on to the lead for the remainder of the game, although Cal pulled within one late in the second half. Eldad Hazor, who led the Bears with two goals, slipped one past UCLA goalkeeper Brandon Brooks to make it 6-5 with a little over 30 seconds remaining.

But the Bruins controlled possession on the next play and forced Cal to end the game with a desperation shot.

In addition to Hazor, James Lathrop, Attila Banhidy and Joe Kaiser each notched one goal.

The Bears' road to the championship certainly wasn't an easy one. After defeating the 49ers in Friday's matchup, the Bears used an unyielding defensive effort to effectively stifle Irvine's two-meter attack and claim the overtime victory.

Jerry Smith tapped in a goal with a little more than a minute remaining to give the Bears a 7-6 advantage. But Cal goalie Tim Kates was caught off guard while chasing a loose ball and the Anteaters' Andy Coffman tied the game at seven apiece.

Neither team could find the back of the net before the buzzer sounded and the semifinal match was sent into overtime. Kaiser scored the first of the Bears' two overtime goals after knocking down a high pass and rocketing a shot just inside the left post.

Kaiser ended the match with a game-high three goals. Smith and Hazor tied with two apiece and Mike West and Banhidy each tallied one goal.

The previous night, the Bears continued to dominate LBSU. Earlier in the year, Cal faced off against the 49ers and captured an 11-6 victory. This time around, the Bears almost put in a repeat performance, spoiling the 49ers' hopes of advancing with a 10-6 win.

Smith helped Cal get off to an explosive start, scoring a game-high three goals in the first quarter. LBSU did pull to within two late in the third period, but Cal strengthened its defensive presence to hold on for the win.

Backing up Smith's scoring spree were Hazor and Kaiser, who both notched two goals. West, Banhidy and Eric Johnson also contributed with one goal apiece.


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