Over the weekend from the home pool of the USC Trojans, California Golden Bears men’s water polo team (18-6) showed that they can potentially win the 2018 NCAA championship in two weeks. After rallying to beat USC in the semifinal on Saturday, Golden Bears came really close to win their first MPSF championship in about a decade (Bears did not win the conference tournament in 2016 when they did win the NCAA tournament) but ultimately lost 12-10 to Stanford (20-2). Unfortunately, the NCAA selection committee opted to include both UCLA and USC as at-large bids over the Golden Bears. The 2018 season for the Golden Bears come to an abrupt end on Sunday night.
A week after the double OT thriller that was the Big Splash, the MPSF championship final was another epic struggle between two water polo giants. For the bulk of the first three quarters, Cal kept on jumping out to a lead but only to see Stanford equalized. Bears had a slim 6-5 lead at the half. In the 3rd quarter, Bears even had a 3 goal lead, but Stanford would not go away; Stanford managed to lead 10-9 going into the final 8 minutes. Unfortunately, there was no more change of the lead in the final quarter as Stanford held on for the 12-10 victory. Cal junior keeper Bernardo Carelli made 7 saves in goal, but it was not quite enough.
The championship match came after the 3rd place match where UCLA (21-4) thrashed host USC (28-3) to a 7-4 win. Based on how much weight were put into this season ending tournament in the past few years, I think most of the men’s water polo community believed that Cal would be dancing in two weeks in Stanford for the NCAA championship.
However, that was not the case when the bracket was announced on Sunday night. Stanford earned the top overall seed. USC, not Cal, somehow got the 2nd seed. UCLA got the 2nd and last at-large bid from the committee. Golden Bears will be staying home despite their thrilling 10-9 win over the Trojans on Saturday, thanks to a nearly last second game winning goal from junior Safak Simsek.
What a rally by @CalWaterPolo! Trailed by three at one point and they win it over USC on the Safak Simsek goal with six seconds left. Bears will meet Stanford for @MPSFMensWP crown tomorrow LIVE on @Pac12Network. Coverage starts at 11am pt with 3rd place. pic.twitter.com/oZyPbxvFwb— Greg Mescall (@GregMescall) November 17, 2018
We are several years into the expanded NCAA men’s water polo bracket that allowed a 3rd MPSF team (but really the foursome of Cal, Stanford, UCLA, and USC) to make the tournament yearly. Unfortunately, this year sees the Bears as the one left out. Golden Bears do have more losses (6 to UCLA’s 4 or USC’s 3), and a particularly bad one to Harvard early in the year - on the heel of 3rd match in a 36 hour stretch. Nonetheless, as the weekend showed, Cal could have won the automatic bid had a few ball skipped a little differently on Sunday afternoon.
With tonight's announcement of the NCAA field, we now know today marks the end of the 2018 season for the Bears. We say thank you to everyone who has supported us all season and we give a hearty #GoBears to our #CalFamily. We couldn't do it without you!— Cal Water Polo (@CalWaterPolo) November 19, 2018
It is a disappointing way to end the year. The only consolation is that despite losing some key players in Johnny Hooper, Odysseas Masmanidis, and Vassilis Tzavaras, head coach Kirk Everist’s squad will again be a NCAA championship contender in 2019. The most successful NCAA team in Cal Athletics (note that Rugby and Men’s Rowing are NOT governed by the NCAA), Golden Bears will continue to look to extend their NCAA men’s water polo record of 14 national championship.