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Will home pool advantage lead to NCAA championship #14 for Cal Men’s Water Polo?

Golden Bears will host UCLA in one semifinal on Saturday and likely face USC in the championship match on Sunday (should they get there).

Cal Men’s Water Polo can break their 9 year national championship drought this weekend from the friendly confine of Spieker Aquatic Center
Cal Men’s Water Polo Facebook page

Nine years. That’s the length of the current Cal Men’s Water Polo national championships drought.

Cal Athletics have not won any Fall National Championship since 2007 when Cal Men’s Water Polo won the 2nd of a back-to-back NCAA national championship. Golden Bears’ 13 NCAA titles rank first amongst all schools (USC with 9, UCLA with 10, and Stanford with 10 are mainly the only other schools to have won a men’s water polo title). Since that last title in December of 2007, Cal have won national titles in rugby 15s (4x), rugby 7s (4x), women’s swimming (4x), men’s swimming (3x), men’s crew (2x), women’s tennis (1x) and women’s crew (1x) in the winter and spring seasons.

With the 2016 NCAA Men’s Water Polo national championship taking place in Spieker Aquatic Center in Berkeley, is home pool advantage what is going to propel the 3rd ranked/seed Bears to national title No.14?

As expected, Bears easily dispatched 17th ranked Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens (a hen flavored with the herb sage? sounds tasty) 16-6 on Thursday night in the Play-In game. Bears earned the right to take on the familiar UCLA Bruins in the 2nd semifinal on Saturday, scheduled for around 5 pm PT. Top seed USC will take on Harvard (who defeated UC Davis 16-15 (OT) in the other Play-In game on Thursday) in the 1st semifinal at 3 pm PT. A Crimson victory over the Trojans will be one of the greatest upset in NCAA men’s water polo history.

Golden Bears (21-4) used its superior athleticism to score early and often against Pomona-Pitzer (21-9) on fast breaks. Senior goalkeeper Lazar Andric was his typical stonewall self at the net, allowing just one goal in a little bit over half of the match. Bears got to rest their starters in the 2nd half after a comfortable 9-1 halftime lead.

Golden Bears have a Rio 2016 Calympian in junior Luca Cupido, an Italian immigrant who represented USA in the most recent Olympic games. Cupido, named to the MPSF 2nd team in 2016, is a great all-around player who can influence the game in many ways. More likely to lead the Bears in scoring are sophomores Johnny Hooper and Greek national team Odysseas Masmanidis - both named to the MPSF 1st Team.

The hallmark of this Cal team is its great defense, particularly inside the cage by senior Lazar Andric - a member of the MPSF 2nd Team. In front of Andric, Bears also have veteran defenders in seniors Thomas Carroll (MPSF Honorable Mention) and Farrel South. Nicholas Carniglia, a member of the US National Team although an injury took him out of running for the Rio Olympic squad, can also play some defender for the Bears. Attacker Conor Neumann has also earned MPSF Honorable Mention honor.

For UCLA (25-2), they have a US Olympian of their own in utility player Alex Roelse. The Bruins have a balanced attack with Patrick Fellner and Ryder Roberts, both named to the MPSF 1st team, leading the way. Bruins also have a pair of MPSF 2nd team members in attack Max Irving, who is 3rd on the team in goals, and center Gordon Marshall.

Senior goalkeeper Garrett Danner has just recently repeated as MPSF Player of the Year. Danner also won national player of the year honor in 2016.

In 2016, UCLA has defeated Cal three times, twice in Berkeley. UCLA won 10-7 in a tournament final in September and then 7-6 in the MPSF regular season match in October. Prior to UCLA losing 7-8 to USC in their last regular season match of the year, Golden Bears have been the only side to repeatedly threaten their winning streak. UCLA’s historic 57th straight victories and aura of invincibility after back-to-back NCAA titles is a thing of the past after the Bruins have suffered two losses to USC in the past month. Few weeks ago, Bears pushed UCLA to the limit at the MPSF tournament, hosted by UCLA, only to fall 11-10 in double OT in a match where the Bears were ahead for the bulk of the regulation. There is little doubt that the Bears savor the chance to finally beat the Bruins, on the biggest stage of the season no less.

Top ranked USC Trojans (23-1) are riding a 15 match winning streak into this weekend’s NCAA championships. Last team to beat the Trojans? Your Golden Bears defeated the Trojans 10-8 in late September at Spieker Aquatic Center.

NCAA Semifinal - Saturday, December 3rd, 2016

Who: California Golden Bears vs. UCLA Bruins

Where: Spieker Aquatic Center (Berkeley, CA)

When: ~5 PM PT

Online Stream:

Taking a page out of our typical men’s basketball previews, that’s end this preview with some keys to a Cal victory.

Keys to Cal Success:

1: Take advantage of fast break opportunities

Johnny Hooper is one of the fastest guy in the pool. Bears, particularly goalie Andric, will be looking to connect on deep passes, as often as possible, to have Hooper goes one on one on Danner.

2. Cash in on “Power Plays”

Just like in hockey, a team gains a man advantage when the opponents is whistled for an exclusion foul. A power play lasts for 20 seconds. Bears need to capitalize on the often 6 on 5 (or even 6 on 4) opportunities in these matches (particularly after a timeout is taken to set up a play). UCLA will be hard to score upon, even with a man advantage, but these were the momentum changing moments of the match.

On a related note, players are only allowed 3 exclusions before they are disqualified from the match. Foul trouble may be a thing to track late in these battles.

3. This is Bear Territory!!!

Yes, Cal Men’s Basketball is playing a game (against Alcorn State) at basically the same time on Saturday. Conveniently, the Cal Men’s Water Polo match will take place after Cal Men’s Basketball’s early afternoon game against Alcorn State next door. Expect a sellout and raucous crowd at Spiekers this weekend. I don’t know if any more tickets are still available (Spieker is a rather intimate setting), but it should be a fun time out for those lucky fans that are able to watch this weekend’s top notch water polo in person.

Whose domicile? Our domicile!

4. Stay aggressive, even with a lead

Bears saw a 3 goal lead evaporate in the last match against these Bruins. Bears also barely hung on in the Big Splash against Stanford. Yes, running out the clock is a strategy in water polo, but the Bears need to stay aggressive offensively. With just two matches left on the year, there is a long offseason to get relaxed.

5. Make Shots

Assistant coach Jeff Tyrrell knows all about making shot in these NCAA championships matches.