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National Champs! Cal Men's Water Polo beats USC 13-12 for 15th NCAA title
Cal Athletics now has 98 team national championships
Make room for another trophy!
After edging UCLA 15-13 in OT in the semifinal yesterday, Cal Men’s Water Polo completes the LA school sweep by besting USC 13-12 today to win the 2021 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championship on Sunday afternoon from Los Angeles.
Cal has now extended their lead as the most successful Men’s Water Polo program in the country with this 15th national title.
You can watch the full replay of this thrilling match on the NCAA webpage or embedded from YouTube below (it’s free too).
It was another close, back-and-forth affair that included a ton of heroic moments for players on both sides. Cal’s junior superstar Nikolaos Papanikolaou was named the tournament MVP and will likely win the Peter Cutino Award, water polo’s version of the Heisman. Despite *only* scoring two goals in each match, “Papa” was literally the center of the Cal attack and drew 9 exclusion fouls (which turned into either a power play or penalty shot opportunity) on the Trojan defense. Cal was 4-for-10 in power play and 3-for-3 in penalty shots in this tight championship final where every score mattered.
Papanikolaou actually did not score until the overtime of the semifinal match on Saturday, but the Cal Bears got the ball to him early and often in this title match. That strategy actually did not work right away as Papanikolaou forced some tough shots against double- and triple-team that were easily stopped by USC’s experienced keeper Nic Porter.
It was another Cal center, George Avakian that got the Golden Bears going by drawing a penalty shot and scoring a goal despite being smothered by multiple defenders. Cal took a 3-2 lead at the end of the first half after a power play goal from Jack Deely.
With a lot of Trojans fans making the short trip to UCLA, USC wanted this championship title as much as the Cal Bears. Trojans and Bears traded goals to combine for 7 goals in the second quarter. The match was tied at 6-6 at the half. USC’s Ash Molthen, who transferred from UCLA, scored a hat-trick in his familiar old home pool.
USC took a 9-7 lead midway through the 3rd quarter. Just like on Saturday, the Cal Bears will answer right away. The two Spanish freshmen Max Casabella and Roberto Valera scored the next two goals for the Bears to tie things at 9-9 going into the final quarter.
Neither team will have more than a one-goal lead again. Trojans’ center Wyatt Barker scored two goals but they were quickly matched by Casabella and Valera. USC’s Jake Ehrhardt, who killed the Bears in the delayed NCAA tournament in the spring, gave the Trojans a lead at 2:29; Cal’s Jack Deely immediately got the answer at 2:12.
The Bears earned a tremendous power play kill, their 9th of the match, to deny USC. Cal was able to hold USC’s Hannes Daube scoreless in the fourth quarter; Daube, a USA Olympian in Tokyo, had a hat trick in the first three quarters. Both sides traded turnovers before the Cal Bears regain the ball and used their final timeout with 48 seconds left to set up a potential game-winner.
One of the most memorable Cal Men’s Water Polo winning moments that I had watched (on a poor quality online stream) was Jeff Tyrrell’s championship-winning goal as time expired in 2006, also against USC. Tyrrell is now Cal head coach Kirk Everist’s second-in-command on the coaching staff.
Graduate student Nikos Delagrammatikas, another Greek player from Athens, will forever join Tyrrell in Cal’s rich water polo lore. After the Bears earned another power play thanks to Papanikolaou, Delagrammatikas scored the game-winner with 28 seconds left.
Delagrammatikas appeared to also be the one who got the field block to end the last USC Trojan attempt.
Here is another angle to the final field block and the celebration that was triggered by the final buzzer.
Cal goalkeeper Adrian Weinberg made 15 saves, including a USC penalty shot. His fine performance at goal was a big reason why USC was only 2-for-11 in power play opportunities. A big part of the USA U-20 National Team this summer, Weinberg should get his chance with the USA Senior Team soon.
The two Cal freshman Spaniards Max Casabella and Roberto Valera also came up big in their first NCAA Championship. Casabella added four more goals to six scored yesterday. Valera found the back of the net three times, including two timely goals that served as equalizers. Jack Deely has two goals himself, but also two more assists for the assist-leader in MPSF this year.
Weinberg, Casabella, and Deely were all named to the All-Tournament Team along with Tournament MVP Papanikolaou.
The entire Cal team contributed to these two fantastic wins. Even if their contributions in the box score is more for picking up exclusion fouls and/or taking an occasional shot, Croatian senior Marko Valecic, redshirt-senior Miles O’Brien-Schridde, junior Garrett Dunn (who scored the clinching goal against UCLA on Saturday), junior Warren Loth, and junior Jake Stone were the other Cal rotation players that got the job done this weekend.
With hindsight, the great fights put up by UCLA and USC this weekend have definitely made this championship be more special to both the team and fans who watched it. Cal improves to a 6-1 all-time record against USC when the NCAA Championship final is on the line. At least three of them (just from what I have watched as a fan) came on the last couple of plays where the Cal Bears just executed slightly better. In other words, winning a national championship is hard.
Congratulations to Cal head coach Kirk Everist and his squad!
Cal has a good shot for a repeat title in 2022 with the majority of the key players back. The Bears could even achieve that in front of home fans; Berkeley will be the site of the next NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championship.
ROLL ON YOU BEARS!
By the numbers:
For Cal Men’s Water Polo, this is their 15th national championship. The program both extends its lead as the most successful one in the country also as the most successful NCAA sponsored program within Cal Athletics (Men’s Swimming and Diving is next best with 6 team titles). This was Cal Men’s Water Polo’s latest national championship since 2016 and the 4th one in head coach Kirk Everist’s 20-year coaching career - all at his alma mater, Cal.
The 15 Cal NCAA Titles came in:
1973, 1974, 1975, 1977, 1983, 1984, 1987, 1988, 1990, 1991, 1992, 2006, 2007, 2016, 2021
For Kirk Everist, he won the 1987 and 1988 titles as a Cal student-athlete. He has now coached the Golden Bears to the 2006, 2007, 2016, and 2021 titles.
For “The Conference of Champions”, the Pac-12 conference now has its 538th NCAA Team Title.
For Cal Athletics, this is the 98th Team National Championship. Note that this count includes a bunch of non-NCAA titles that were either due to Rugby (33) and Men’s Crew (17) not being governed by the NCAA or because these historical titles (like the 5 for Cal Football) predated the NCAA recognized ones (the still relatively new College Football Playoffs that was only implemented in 2014).
Stuck at 97 since the Men’s Swimming and Diving title in spring 2019, Cal is finally able to move closer to that triple-digit count. We shall see if Cal Swimming and Diving, Rugby, or Crew can push that total to 100 by as soon as the end of the spring semester.