Polo Goalies Put Themselves in Harm's Way

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Ever wonder what it feels like to be inside a cage? Try asking a water polo goalkeeper.

They can tell you all about being confined to a one-by-three meter space that is all theirs to patrol for 28 minutes. While treading water the entire time.

Russell Bernstein and Tim Kates are Cal's main patrolmen and arguably the best goalie duo in the nation.

To have two strong goalies is unusual for a water polo team, which normally relies on one settled starter, but the Bears believe their co-starter system gives them a big edge.

The results indicate they are right-Cal has used the arrangement for the last three years, going a combined 38-19 and never finishing ranked lower than No. 4 in the nation.

Each player starts about half the games, though Bernstein's seniority means he usually gets the call for the most critical matchups-like last Saturday's win over No. 3 USC, while Kates played against No. 9 Long Beach State.

"Both of them are very emotional goalies who have their own individual strengths," says Cal coach Kirk Everist. "Russell is a great anticipator and Tim is more athletic and a better passer."

The two have shared the cage for three years. But being number one and two really doesn't faze the goalies, who say they use each other as support and as a means to learn from each other.

As senior co-captain, Bernstein is put into the position of mentor for the goalkeeping corps, which includes promising freshmen David Bartels and Nate Bennett.

"I try to teach them all the goalie philosophies that I have acquired from my experiences and other coaches," says Bernstein. "Different things work for different individuals and it's all about learning what is best for you."

The process of learning is not always an easy one, and the experience and age of Bernstein and Kates assist Bennett and Bartels in their journey.

"They include us in the learning process and are always willing to help," says Bartels. "They always listen to what you have to say too."

Bernstein, a three-year starter who has posted 261 saves in his career, certainly has the right to be the voice of experience.

He also has big-game credentials after making 13 saves and earning Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Player of the Week in the Bears' 4-3 victory over Stanford.

At 6-foot-6, it shouldn't be easy to overlook Kates, who has managed 133 saves in his three year career sharing the limelight with Bernstein.

Though there is only one player in the cage at a time, the Cal goalies have developed a tight-knit bond among themselves.

Sticking together and trusting one another's abilities are important to the relationship that the goalies share.

They unanimously agreed that they would never question Everist's choice.

"Picking who's on goal is a combination of things, but mostly a gut feeling," says Everist. "Each goalie has their own strengths and we take them into account when choosing."

Everist says he considers who has been having good workouts, who would match up the best against each team, and levels of fatigue when making his choice.

While goalies are often considered to be of a different breed, most goalkeepers take pride in their unparalleled job in the pool.

"It's sort of the team joke that goalies have a screw loose because they actually choose to put themselves in front of a ball traveling at high speeds," says Bennett.

Most netminders stumble upon the position by accident, but all four Cal goalies concurred that just one trial between the pipes was enough to know that it was for them.

Kates, who had aspirations of becoming a football player, knew that he was a natural for the spot.

"I started at a goalie camp because my parents thought I wasn't the right body type to play football," says Kates, who, at 170 pounds, is 40 pounds lighter than the other three keepers. "I've always loved it since."

Goalies have a special love for the very thing that makes them so weird to other water polo players, the same thing that separates the good from the first-rate goalies.

"A goalie can't be backing down from shots," says Everist. "They have to be aggressive in order to make the big, important saves."

A fearless nature is inside a goalie, who has to put his body in front of every shot.

"The best goalies want to give it their all to block the ball," says Kates.

The keepers say other players are eager to try their luck in goal during practice, and always come away with increased appreciatation of the rigors of the position.

Though a goalkeeper's most obvious responsibility is stopping shots, it takes more to be a complete player.

"I try to be a leader for the team," says Kates. "I am in a unique position to view everything that is going on, so I become like the second set of eyes for everyone."

Often heard shouting directions to teammates in the pool, it is a goalie's job to ensure that his team is working to its fullest potential.

"You have to be able to clearly communicate what you see on the field to help your teammates and yourself make quick decisions," says Bernstein.


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