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Tough losses by Cal Rugby and Cal Women’s Water Polo ahead of postseason

Two of Cal’s best nation championship contenders suffered losses in enemy territories toward the end of the regular season.

Cal Rugby fell to East Bay rival SMC for the 2nd consecutive year.
Cal Varsity Rugby Facebook Page (Photo by Zach Franzen)

The plan originally was to write about how Cal Rugby got a huge win at St. Mary’s College and/or Cal Women’s Water Polo getting a historical outright MPSF regular season title with a win at USC on Saturday. Of course, neither of these events happened. In an effort to prove to myself as much as to anyone else that the Golden Bears can still win these national championships, here is a closer examinations at those two matches (I did not pay for the stream to watch the Cal Rugby match, bud I did watch the water polo match in its entirety afterward after just intermittent checking live).

Cal Women’s Water Polo 6, USC 11

This was a very physical match from the start. There was not really any flow to the match early in this one as every possession is either a turnover via an offensive foul or an exclusion (power play) for the other team. Thanks to two outside strikes from Cal sophomore Emma Wright, Golden Bears briefly had an early 2-1 lead at the end of the first period.

While not a prototypical “center”, USC’s Briana Deboub scored her 2nd goal from close in for the tie early on in the 2nd quarter. USC went ahead by capitalizing on a power play as Hayley McKelvey, which turned out to be a lead that the Trojans would not relinquish. When the Bears failed to score on a power play, USC immediately got a transition goal from Maud Megans for her first of 4 goals. Cal senior defender Kindred Paul did get a rare goal to pull the Bears within one but that’s the best that the Bears can do before the half. Things nearly got worse when Cal’s superstar Dora Antal was held on a non-call that turned into a USC steal and power play opportunity. Cal keeper Madison Tagg came up big to keep the deficit at one at the half.

Third quarter was a different story as a total of 7 goals were scored by the two teams. An early power play goal by McKelvey was quickly followed by another USC goal just 30 seconds later by Megens from outside. Despite the 3 goal deficit, the Bears will not quit. Cal senior Anna Illes scored two goals around a goal by Sarah Siepker but USC also had a goal by Megans during this exchange. Nonetheless, the Bears got within 1 again late in the 3rd quarter ahead of some controversy. On a power play, USC’s Jensen fired a shot where the ball may or may not fully cross the goal line before being grabbed by Tagg. Nonetheless, the referees ruled it a goal while Cal head coach Coralie Simmons can only pick up a yellow card in frustration.

Facing a two goal deficit going to the final 8 minutes, the 4th quarter was all USC. Golden Bears had a lot of chances but USC’s Amanda Longan had a great game in collecting 14 saves. Bears were shutout in the 4th quarter and they did not start to concede those extra USC goals until the final 5.5 minutes.

For the match, USC converted 4 of 9 power plays while the Bears can only convert 1 of 4. I cannot say how much of this is due to the home pool advantage of USC, but this will also be the same site for the NCAA tournament (just like it was for the men last fall).

Golden Bears’ freshman Dutch center Kitty Lynn Joustra was completely shutdown by the Trojans as the Bears have virtually no inside attack in this match. This made USC goalie Longan’s job to be that much easier. Cal’s all time leading scorer Dora Antal was also shutout as she was involved in some physical wrestling match with a USC Trojan both offensively and defensively all match long.

Continuing my primary concern about the team is the Bears’ inability to win the opening sprints of every quarter in matches against Stanford, UCLA, and now USC. Those extra possessions given to the opponents are tough to have in an otherwise field of so much parity in 2018. Given all the Cal women’s swimming prowess, can’t women’s water polo just borrow an Abbey Weitzeil or Amy Bilquist just for the opening sprints of every quarter?

Big picture-wise, this loss doesn’t really mean all that much. Cal can still earn a share of the MPSF regular season title if Stanford beats USC (as expected) later for a three-way tie between Cal, Stanford, and USC. The MPSF postseason tournament will be hosted by the Golden Bears in a couple of weeks, although only the top two teams will get a first round bye.

For the NCAA tournament, the larger field (compared to the men) for women means that all four of Cal, Stanford, USC, and UCLA will be comfortably in the tournament (compared to just 3 for the men after a recent addition of that 3rd spot). It also means that top and second seed will likely face a tough (and familiar) semifinal opponent regardless. Out of these group of 4, Cal is the only school to not have won a NCAA title (the other 3 have split all of the NCAA Women’s Water Polo championships to date). Nonetheless, with the graduation of Maggie Steffens (USA superstar that led to an American Gold medal in 2016 Rio) from Stanford, the 2018 field is wide open between these four teams.

Golden Bears (17-4, 4-1 in MPSF despite what says) will close the regular season with a road match at UC Davis on April 21st. The MPSF tournament will take place the weekend after that on April 27-29. The NCAA tournament will be on May 11-13 from USC’s home pool.

Bears might not have gotten the big confidence boost from the Saturday result, but I think they are a good bet to win the program’s first MPSF tournament thanks to the home pool. Being able to establish an inside game (which was the key in both of the regular season victories over Stanford and UCLA) will naturally lead to more power play opportunities for the Bears. I think like the odds for a historic finish for Cal Women’s Water Polo in 2018. I give them a 20% chance to win it all.

Cal Rugby 12, St. Mary’s College 21

For the 2nd straight year, the California Golden Bears rugby suffered a regular season closing loss to St. Mary’s College. Unlike last year when the two schools are playing in two different postseasons, Golden Bears may get the chance to avenge this loss in the post season relatively soon as both schools will compete for the same national championship title in 2018.

Both sides only scored two tries apiece but SMC got three penalties for the margin. Golden Bears did not have a very clean match as they registered 20 turnovers in this one, including many close to the try zone. Both head coach Jack Clark and captain Thomas Robles pointed to the handling issues as a big reason for this loss in the official recap. No doubt that the Bears will work hard to improve this skill in the coming practices.

St. Mary’s College got a great kicking game out of their Scottish transfer in Sean Yacoubian who also studied Mechanical Engineering at the University of Strathclyde (and play in the U-20 Scotland team back in 2014) before moving to the United States (for a graduate degree? since he’s listing a Strathclyde degree on LinkedIn).

If I have any major concern about Cal Rugby for 2018, it would be the kicking game after the graduation of Russell Webb, who just made his debut for the Hong Kong 7s - a tournament that is now on ESPN this year (note ESPN will also broadcast both the D1A Rugby championship and the CRC this year as they improve their rugby coverage).

Cal’s own British import, Troy Lockyear, back from a season ending injury last year, was the kicker in this match for the lone conversion. Fifth-year senior Jamie Howells have been the No.10 player for the Bears for the bulk of the season before the recent return of Lockyear (Lockyear replaced Howells midway in the past three matches - Army, Utah, and Dartmouth wins). Given how close the semifinal and final (should the Bears get there) may be in the postseason, making those tough conversions and/or penalties may decide these matches.

We will find out soon about the D1A Rugby postseason bracket at 9 AM on Sunday. Bears will host the first round against TBD on April 14th, and likely a 2nd round match on April 21st. Should the Bears make it to the semifinal, they will have to travel to either SMC or Life (in Marietta, Georgia) for the semifinal on April 28th. The D1A Rugby National Championships will be played on May 5th from Santa Clara University.

Prior to this match, Cal was ranked 3rd behind No.1 SMC and No.2 Life. I doubt that the Bears will be penalized much for this loss in the rankings. No.4 BYU has lost twice to SMC, including a match at Provo. Of course, having to travel all the way across the country to Life may not be preferable for the Bears than a rematch with SMC in the semifinal.

I would not count against Jack Clark’s men in the postseason, but after this loss, I would have to downgrade the Golden Bears’ chance to win another 15s national championship down from 70% to about 55%.

The Scoring Timeline vs. Saint Mary’s

6:00 Saint Mary’s (Sean Yacoubian) 3

14:00 Justin Dunn 5

17:00 Saint Mary’s (Sean Yacoubian) 3

36:00 Saint Mary’s (Tavite Lopeti) 5, (Sean Yacoubian) 2

Halftime Score: Saint Mary’s 13, California 5

46:00 Saint Mary’s (Sean Yacoubian) 3

53:00 Keanu Andrade 5, Troy Lockyear 2

78:00 Saint Mary’s (Tom Brusati) 5

Final Score: Saint Mary’s 21, California 12

The Team vs. Saint Mary’s

15. Flynn, 14. Cusano, 13. Purdey, 12. Dyer (Roeske @ 28:00), 11. Dunn, 10. Lockyear, 9. Andrade (Kurihara @ 70:00), 1. Sullivan, 2. Iscaro, 3. Wiley (Baylor @ 66:00), 4. Casey, 5. Bader, 6. Spradling (Holland @ 74:00), 7. Mirhashem, 8. Robles

ICYMI, here is the 9 minute version of the Pac-12 Network’s inspirational feature on Cal Rugby’s Robert Paylor. The full 18 minute version will be released online without restriction later this month.