One more match to go.
Cal Men’s Water Polo (22-4) is one match away from achieving their season long goal to return to the summit of collegiate water polo. Cal owns the most NCAA national championship all-time with 13 titles and today is a perfect day to add to that total. Bears have the rare opportunity to win a national championship in their very own home pool.
Standing in the way of the Golden Bears are the USC Trojans (24-1), in their 12th straight NCAA men’s water polo championship match. The Trojans have lost the last two championship matches to their crosstown rival in UCLA. Prior to that the Trojans have won 6 straight titles, including 2010 over the Bears. Bears defeated the Trojans in their last two NCAA championships in 2006 and 2007.
The Golden Bears and the Trojans have faced each other twice in 2016, they have split the two matches: the Bears won 10-8 in Berkeley early in the season as a part of the Mountain Pacific Invitational, but the Trojans won 10-6 in LA in the regularly scheduled conference match. The Cal victory is the only blemish, thus far, on the USC season in 2016. The Trojans will carry a 16 match winning streak into Sunday’s championship match.
Keys to Victory:
1. Lazar Andric vs. McQuin Baron
Just like a good pitching matchup in baseball, while the two goalies will not necessarily test one another, the play inside the cages will likely determine who wins this championship. Cal’s Andric just bested the two time reigning conference player of the year and the reigning national player of the year in UCLA goalie Garrett Danner. Andric will have to again best another very good goalie, USA 2016 Rio Olympian McQuin Baron of USC.
Baron was very good in USC’s then upset 10-6 win over Cal on October 29th. However, unlike Andric, Baron hasn’t been tested since the MPSF final on November 20th. It is possible that Baron won’t play with the same edge as Andric.
Either Andric or Baron will likely be the Most Valuable Player of the NCAA tournament.
2. Fast break with Johnny Hooper
Against UCLA on Saturday, Bears clearly were trying to take advantage of Hooper’s speed in the transition game. While this strategy didn’t quite work against the Bruins, it remains a big part of the Cal offense. Hooper, Cal’s leading scorer, was held in check until a goal in the 4th quarter.
Nevertheless, Hooper has been the Bears’ leading scorer in both outing against the Trojans. Hooper had a hat trick in the win and a brace in the loss to Southern Cal.
Of course, junior Conor Neumann ends up being the offensive hero for the Bears on Saturday by scoring the last two goals.
3. Continue with the physical defense
Like I mentioned in my recap of Saturday’s win, Bears had to play the 4th quarter and OT without any of their usual defenders due to all 4 players being disqualified after picking up 3 exclusion fouls (Carniglia picked up a different kind of major foul as his 2nd to be DQ’ed). Nevertheless, I doubt the Bears will play any less physical on Sunday against the Trojans. To win the national championship, the Bears will need to play the same kind of inspired defense...but preferably without being whistled for an exclusion which would give the opponent a 20 second power play.
Matteo Morelli scored 4 goals in USC’s win over Cal, but he was not a part of the 19 goal outburst against Harvard on Saturday. Blake Edwards, USC’s top scorer last season, is again one of the top finishers for them. Edwards had a hat trick in Trojan’s 2015 NCAA semifinal win over the Bears.
4. Use the emotions to their advantage
As emotional as Saturday’s win over UCLA was, expect more of the same on Sunday. Bears will rely on the home crowd to compensate for any lethargy that they may feel from the OT thriller.
While the yellow card that goalie Lazar Andric picked up was rather questionable, don’t be surprised if head coach Kirk Everist (or his assistant coach Jeff Tyrrell) end up having to watch the end of the match from afar due to a red card.
Cal fans will make sure that the Trojans know that Spieker is a Bear Territory!
5. Make shots
There is 100% correlation with the team that makes the most shots winning the match after all.
2016 NCAA Men’s Water Polo national championship finals
California Golden Bears (22-4) vs. University of Southern California Trojans (24-1)
Where: Spieker Aquatics Complex (Berkeley, CA)
When: 3 pm PT
Online Stream: NCAA.com (For those running AdBlockers, you may need to turn that off to get the stream to work.)
This post will serve as the gamethread for today’s national championship match.