Part 1 of my Fall Olympic Sports preview set up the whole parallel across most Cal sports about replacing a graduated legend. The best example of that is Luca Cupido, the Pete Cutino Award winner for the best collegiate water polo player last year, and his graduation from Cal Men’s Water Polo.
Cal Men’s Water Polo - Perennial National Title Contender seeks No.15
Season Opener: 9/1 vs. Air Force at 8:20am PT from Canyonview Aquatic Center (San Diego, CA)
Big Splash: 11/10 at TBA from Spieker Aquatics Complex (Berkeley, CA); match will be on the Pac-12 Networks
Last year: 20-4, NCAA postseason, eliminated in semifinal by USC
Expectation: NCAA title contender once again, top 3 in the country
Luca Cupido will obviously be missed by the Cal Bears for his all-around game. In addition to being the team leading scorer with 58 goals last year, Cupido also plays a tough defense in key possessions toward the end of the matches. Still, graduation is the norm in college sports and Cal fans will also have that 2016 NCAA championship banner to remember Cupido and his brilliant Cal career.
Plenty of offensive power returns for the Golden Bears, led by a pair of now seniors in Johnny Hopper and Odysseas Masmanidis (I’ve got to relearn how to spell that name again), who scored 47 and 40 goals, respectively. Hooper, one of the most prolific scorer in Cal history, had a great summer playing with team USA. Other experienced scorers include junior Spencer Farrar (26 goals), junior Safak Simsek (26 goals), and senior Vassilis Tzavaras (21 goals). That’s a lot of upperclassmen with experiences. Masmanidis and Tzavaras are the co-captains for the 2018 season.
What is more interesting may be who will fill the center position, vacated by former co-captain in Pedro Stellet. Stellet’s younger brother is now on the team, but is listed as an attacker.
For the keeper position, Cal will have a new starter for the 2nd year. After two years of Lazar Andric, Kevin Le Vine came out of nowhere to fill that role seamlessly (with Andric serving as an assistant coach). Coming into 2018, Cal have two players with limited experiences in juniors Bernado Carelli and Spencer Tagg (whose twin sister Madison will also get the chance to win the starter’s job for the Cal women’s team after the graduation of Madeline Trabucco). Of course, head coach Kirk Everist may also choose to go with a freshman - having two on the roster in Sam Murphy and Anthony Rethans. Andric is also back on the sideline for the Bears as an assistant coach.
Since in men’s water polo, there are only 4 teams that have a realistic great shot to win the championship, let’s take a look at the competition:
UCLA, winner of the 2014, 2015, and 2017 NCAA title (2016 went to the Golden Bears, in case you forgot) also lost a lot of talent to graduation. US Olympian Alex Roelse and Matt Farmer were both finalists for the Cutino Award that went to Cal’s Cupido. Max Irving, their 2nd leading scorer with 40 goals, have also graduated. That’s the 2nd through 4th top scorer that are gone. Bruins do return their leading top scorer in Montenegro sophomore Nicolas Saveljic (45 goals last year) as well as their starting keeper in redshirt junior Alex Wolf. UCLA earned their 11th NCAA title last year, closing the gap to Cal’s record of 14.
USC has graduated keeper Baron McQuin, who won the Cutino award in 2016. They also graduated Blake Edwards, 2nd leading scorer with 46 goals, and Matteo Morelli, 3rd leading scorer with 38 goals. The coach’s son Marko Vavic, who really stood out in the NCAA tournament last year, is only a sophomore; he is also the leading scorer for the Trojans last year with 51 goals.
Stanford did manage to beat the Bear in the Big Splash 11-10 last year, which the Bears played sans Cupido, but they are still a step below the other three since 2014. Only the top 3 teams in the very competitive MPSF can make the NCAA tournament (which is still much fairer than the days of just one at-large bid not too long ago). A quick glance at the Stanford roster for 2018 shows that 2⁄3 of the roster are freshman or redshirt freshman; they are probably way too young to be competitive at the highest level this year.
The preseason ranking is not that important for men’s water polo because the top teams do play each other multiple times in tournaments and regular season matches. Defending champ UCLA predictably are ranked No.1, followed by the runner-up in USC. Cal comes in at No.3 ahead of Stanford.
After some non-conference matches to blend the youth with the veterans, Cal won’t face the LA schools until the MPSF Invitational in early October. Late October through November will see the regularly scheduled conference matches ahead of the MPSF Championships down in LA.
What is perhaps more important is the location of the NCAA Championships on December 1st and 2nd. Golden Bears were able to win the title in 2016 when the NCAA Championships were hosted in Berkeley. Bears were eliminated in a close match by host USC in 2017. The NCAA Championships will be back in NorCal for 2018, from the campus of Stanford. Not having to compete down in SoCal may mean a golden opportunity for that record extending 15th NCAA title for Cal Men’s Water Polo.
Cal Cross Country - Program best year for Women’s XC?
Season Opener: 9/1 USF Invitational (San Francisco, CA)
Last year: women made it to the NCAA championship as a team, placed 22nd; men sent two runners to the NCAA championship
Expectation: Bethan Knights is back as a redshirt senior. Brie Oakley got another year to grow. Expectations are high for the Cal women, non-existent for the men.
Women’s finished 22nd in the country. They are the 18th ranked preseason team this year. Good thing that I got another week to rewrite part of this, because newer previews now show that Bethan Knights is back for the Golden Bears as a redshirt senior (she probably got a medical redshirt approved only recently because she was not mentioned in the previous Back in Camp post). Knights was the Bears’ top finisher last year at the NCAA with a 23rd overall finish.
As the result of having two great runners at the top of the lineup in Knights and Oakley (former top ranked recruit), Golden Bears are a good bet to get back to the NCAA as a team and even improve on that 22nd overall finish last year. Given health (which is always a big IF), this could be a historically great season.
Oakley was the 2nd best freshman at the NCAA championship last year when she finished 38th; she should be even stronger after an year with the program. Fellow sophomore Annie Boos had a strong Outdoor Track and Field season, she should step it up for the Cross Country season and improve on that 206th overall finish at the NCAA last year.
FloTrack likes the addition of transfer Brenley Goertzen from TCU, she finished 108th in the country last year at the NCAA.
For the Cal men, the two runners that made the NCAA as individual last year - Garrett Corcoran and Trent Brendel were both listed as senior. Corcoran, however, is back with the program for the cross country season while being listed as “graduate student”. Still, the rest of the Cal men are quite young and inexperienced. Corcoran had a breakout “senior” year last year. Time will tell if any other Cal men will make that jump this year.
Some quick first impression about the other Cal sports from the first full weekend of action.
- Cal Volleyball (3-0) dominated against weak opponents by sweeping all the sets (as I had hoped) against Chicago State, Rutgers (by far the worst of the Big 10), and Colgate. Yes, it doesn’t mean that much because the opposition were overmatched, but it was nice to see the Golden Bears dominate. Bears appear to be playing a 6-2 offense again pairing up freshman Jade Blevins with veteran Isabel Potter as setters. Freshman middle blocker Bella Bergmark also shined in her first action. Bears will visit South Dakota this weekend to play against Northern Colorado, South Dakota, and Northeastern.
- Cal Field Hockey (1-1) looked impressive in beating Providence 5-1 and looked okay in the 5-0 loss to Maryland where they conceded way too many penalty corners. Sophomore Megan Rodgers opened the year with a hat trick and is probably on her way to rewrite more Cal records. Bears host Miami (Ohio) on Sunday in their lone match of the week.
- Cal Men’s Soccer (2-0) had a pair of one goal wins, which is good enough for them to be ranked in the Top Drawer’s Top 25 at No.19. Bears will have to win on the road this weekend with a trip to Pacific on Friday.
- Cal Women’s Soccer (2-1) bounced back from a tough road loss to No.19 Santa Clara with a 2-0 win over Harvard. The Bears may have lost sophomore captain Emily Smith to an injury late in this one and that could be catastrophic as she is the defensive QB for the Bears this year. We shall see how the Bears do this weekend against San Diego State (Friday) and UC Santa Barbara (Sunday).