Cal Men's Water Polo gets the 2nd seed in the NCAA tournament

Golden Bears will likely have to go through the LA schools (UCLA in semi, USC in final) to earn the program's 15th title

After sweeping the competition in the MPSF regular season play, Cal Men’s Water Polo (20-4) had a tough time in the MPSF tournament this past weekend at Stanford when they lost two close and hard-fought matches. Fortunately, Cal’s regular season resume is so good that they still earned one of the two at-large bids to make the 2021 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championship field. Cal Men’s Water Polo, the most successful NCAA-sponsored sport on campus, will be the lone Cal team that can win a national championship this semester.

In somewhat of a surprise, 3rd-seed UCLA (19-3) won the MPSF tournament to take the automatic bid. They also got the 3rd seed in the NCAA tournament. USC (17-2), who went 2-1 against the Cal Bears, got the top seed. Cal has the 2nd seed.

UCLA should have no trouble against the winner between Princeton (25-7) and Fordham (24-6) to make the NCAA semifinal against Cal on Saturday, December 4th. Likewise, USC will be the heavy favorite in the other semifinal against the winner between Long Beach State (22-5) and UC Davis (18-8). The championship will be decided on Sunday, December 5th from UCLA’s Spieker Aquatics Center (FYI, Cal’s home pool is called “Spieker Aquatics COMPLEX”).

As we saw this past weekend from Palo Alto, any of the top-4 teams of Cal, USC, UCLA, and even Stanford, whose season has ended, could potentially win this NCAA title. The other three schools have all won at least once (2x for UCLA) since Cal last won in 2016. This group of Cal Bears is certainly hungry, as well as capable, of extending the program’s lead on the most NCAA Men’s Water Polo title to 15.

The NCAA Semifinal and Final matches are streamed for free on the NCAA website.

MPSF Tournament recap:

Semifinal: Cal 11, Stanford 12 (OT)

Top-seed Cal Bears could not hold on to a 7-5 lead late in the 3rd quarter nor a 10-9 lead with late against host Stanford. Cardinals equalized with just under a minute to go. Cal could not win it on their last possession of the regulation and never had the lead in the overtime sessions. The freshman duo of Roberto Valera and Max Casabella each scored three goals. Cal’s MPSF Player of the Year Nikolaos Papanikolaou added two goals.

3rd-place match: Cal 9, USC 11

2nd-seed USC was also edged by their rival in the other MPSF semifinals, setting up a showdown between the top-2 ranked teams in the 3rd-place match. The addition of the 2nd at-large bid to the NCAA championships field has taken some importance out of this match, but both sides wanted a win to feel comfortable on Sunday night, waiting for the tournament bracket to be revealed.

Papanikolaou and MPSF Newcomer of the Year Roberto Valera each scored two goals while Cal graduate student captain Nikos Delagrammatikas scored three. It was a hard-fought match with many ties until the last 6+ minutes when the Trojans got three straight goals.

Cal Bears sweep the MPSF Awards

With the Cal Bears going undefeated in the regular season while earning the No.1 ranking in the country, it was hardly a surprise that the Golden Bears swept all of the MPSF awards.

First of all, Cal accomplished the feat of sweeping both of the weekly awards - player of the week and newcomer of the week an unprecedented 5 times during the season.

With that kind of dominance, it was hardly surprising that Cal junior Nikolaos Papanikolaou has earned another MPSF Player of the Year honor. The Greek native plays the center position closest to the opponent’s goal. Papanikolaou is not only the conference leader in goals (up to 64 now) but also in drawing exclusions (which turn into power-play opportunities).

Cal head coach Kirk Everist has also won his second consecutive MPSF Coach of the Year honor. The Cal alum and former USA “Calympian” has led the Golden Bears to three national championships (2006, 2007, 2016) and counting. Everist won his 400th career match earlier this season, in his 20th season at the helm of the program.

With the biggest competition possibly from fellow Cal and Spanish Junior teammate Max Casabella, Roberto Valera was named the MPSF Newcomer of the Year. Valera is currently 4th on the team with 40 goals. This is an achievement that is even more impressive when you factor in how he missed six of the early season matches, golden opportunities to pad the stats in those non-conference contests, by being away to play for the Spanish Junior National Team.

Congratulations to all the Cal award winners, although I can be sure that all of them would be willing to trade these awards for the NCAA National Championship title. Given the opportunity to play more water polo this season, Cal Bears would love to break the current losing streak and end the season with two more wins. They are certainly very capable of achieving that.