Cal outlasts UCLA in OT, faces USC for the NCAA Men's Water Polo National Title today
Golden Bears will go for the program's 15th national title this Sunday afternoon at 2 PM PT
Trailing by two goals going into the final quarter in a tough road environment with the season on the line, Cal Men’s Water Polo was unfazed by the task ahead.
The UCLA Bruins might be the reigning NCAA champions, who were also coming off an MPSF tournament win two weeks ago, but the Cal Bears knew that they can beat this team, having done that in both meetings this season before Saturday.
The raucous home crowd (although there appeared on the free webstream to be a decent number of Cal fans as well) probably gave the Bruins some unfair advantage, particularly early, with regards to how the officials were calling the exclusion fouls, but the Cal Bears will not quit.
[The Full Replay of the match has been uploaded to YouTube.]
The NCAA page has the full replay of the match available1. If you have some time, I would suggest watching the replay, possibly from the start of the 4th quarter (49:30 mark). The NCAA also has a shorter recap of both semifinal matches. One does not need to really know that much about water polo to appreciate the emotion and effort from the players on both sides in this entertaining match showcasing collegiate water polo at its best.
UCLA’s reigning MPSF Newcomer of the Year Makoto Kenney scored with a second left in the third quarter to put the Bruins ahead by 2. UCLA has had several possessions in this match where they scored just before the end of a period or shot clock. The Bruins then won the 4th quarter sprint to have the ball first with a chance to go up by 3 goals. Cal keeper Adrian Weinberg was able to make one of his 8 key saves on the night.
Really shining in this match for the Cal Bears was Max Casabella, the Cal freshman from Spain. Casabella had a hat trick in the first half alone when the match was tied at 5-all. With a full arsenal of shots from fastball to breaking balls and change-ups, Casabella scored his 5th goal to pull the Bears within one.
Unfortunately, Cal’s best defender and senior captain Nikos Delagrammatikas fouled out after picking up his third exclusion/penalty fouls with over six minutes left in regulation. Other Golden Bears would need to pick up the slack defensively. Immediately, Cal was able to withstand this UCLA power play to keep the deficit at one.
On their next possession, Cal’s superstar Greek center Nikolaos Papanikolaou earned the Bears a power play. The current MPSF Newcomer of the Year, another impact freshman from Spain, Roberto Valera assisted on Jack Deely’s 3rd goal. The match is now tied with 5:31 left in regulation.
Taking advantage of a UCLA turnover, Cal went back to Casabella again. The Spanish freshman threw a change-up to evade the UCLA goalkeeper Bernardo Maurizi and found the back of the net. Casabella scored his SIXTH goal in this match.
"It was a hell of a performance for a young kid," Cal head coach Kirk Everist said of Casabella. "He had a lot of experience playing against older players growing up in Spain's Youth National Team program, but at the end of the day he's a 19-year old kid. That's a pretty special performance."
Credit to UCLA for fighting hard all match long (it does take two great teams to create a classic like this one), the Bruins made two stops before finding an equalizer at 2:53 left courtesy of a Jake Cavano goal.
Cal superstar Nikolaos Papanikolaou may be held scoreless during the entire regulation of this match, but the two-time reigning MPSF Player of the Year drew a penalty shot in the third quarter and yet another power play opportunity for the Bears here. Roberto Valera put the Bears ahead again with 1:58 left. Valera ended the match with 2 goals and 5 assists.
UCLA earned their own power play on the next possession. The Bears could not stop the Bruins as Tommy Gruwell got the match even again.
Cal got another power play thanks to Nikolaos Papanikolaou. After taking a timeout to try to set up a play, Jack Deely scored his 4th goal of the match with 30 seconds left to put the Bears ahead again. Would this be enough?
Unfortunately no, UCLA was able to pull their goalkeeper for another attacker with the last play of the regulation. The extra attacker allowed Kenney to score the match-tying goal with three seconds left. The reigning Peter Cutino Award winner Nicolas Saveljic was credited with his 2nd assist.
We would have six extra minutes (broken up into two three-minutes periods) to decide who will get to face the USC Trojans in the NCAA Championship Final on Sunday afternoon.
Papanikolaou came into the match as the conference-leading scorer. UCLA was able to contain him with physical defense from two or even three defenders, but the effectiveness of that was already waning in the fourth quarter with Papa drawing exclusion fouls to earn Cal pivotal power plays.
In overtime, Papa was finally unleashed by being able to earn a better position in front of the net where he could score one-timers like this one.
Cal took a 13-12 lead at the end of the first OT. Papa scored again, off a feed from Jack Deely to put the Bears ahead by two with 2:38 left.
"Papa was pretty bottled up for most of the game," Everist said. "He just needed to find a window to just get it on his hand. The windows are pretty narrow for him. It wasn't anything we specifically talked about. We are just trying to attack the best we can and not get frustrated, take good shots, and hopefully make them pay for not allowing him to touch the ball much."
UCLA did get another goal back before Garrett Dunn, brother of Justin who played both Rugby and some Football at Cal, put the match away with a dagger at the 0:18 mark.
The Golden Bears were victorious 15-13 after a grueling 38 minutes of intense water polo to earn a spot on Sunday’s national championship final! Survive and advance!
A major difference for the Cal Bears was in their power play efficiency, particularly in that fourth quarter. For the match, Cal was 5 for 7 while UCLA was only 3 for 9 (though they scored at least twice with a 7-on-6 man advantage by pulling the goalie at the end of a period).
Despite allowing 15 goals, UCLA’s goalkeeper Maurizi was able to make 16 saves. The Cal defense was able to earn both more steals and field blocks in front of keeper Adrian Weinberg that Weinberg only needed to make 8 saves.
Awaiting Cal (21-4) in the final are the USC Trojans (18-2) who defeated UC Davis 11-8 in the first semifinal. Even after losing longtime head coach Jovan Vavic after he was fired for his role in accepting bribes in the whole “Operation Varsity Blue” college admission scandal, USC has maintained their national championship contender status in the past three seasons.
New head coach Marko Pintaric is a USC alum and long-time assistant coach. His Trojans team lost to UCLA in the championship final this spring after USC eliminated Cal 12-10 in the semifinal. USC has also given the Bears their most recent loss at the MPSF tournament 3rd place match to earn this NCAA tournament top-seed.
Then again, Cal Bears are responsible for one of those two USC losses this season when they won 7-6 in the regular season. Similarly, USC is responsible for half of Cal’s 4 losses this fall. In the delayed spring season, Cal was actually 5-1 against USC (it was a weird season with Cal only playing USC/UCLA/Stanford before all four made the condensed NCAA tournament) but lost the one match that mattered the most in the NCAA tournament.
Jacob Mercep, USC’s 4th leading scorer in history, was a Cutino Award finalist alongside Papanikolaou for this last season. The Croatian driver has 46 goals on the year, including a brace in their semifinal win over UC Davis. Hannes Daubes, a 2021 Tokyo Olympian for Team USA, had 4 goals on Saturday to tie for 2nd on the USC scoring list with Jake Ehrhardt. Ehrhardt had four goals and two assists in that NCAA semifinal heartbreak for the Bears back in late March.
Another familiar foe for the Cal Bears will be USC goalkeeper Nic Porter. A starter since his freshman year when he led the Trojans to the 2018 NCAA title, the Australian native had a career-high 20 save effort against the Bears back in January.
Expect another hard-fought battle for the full 32 minutes, if not more. Just like how UCLA had a two-goal lead early in the 4th quarter on Saturday, Cal also could not hold a two-goal lead late in that NCAA semifinal against these same Trojans.
Of course, the Cal offense has gotten a lot more potent this fall with the addition of Roberto Valera and Max Casabella. Five of the top-10 scorers in the conference are Cal Bears.
When Cal won at USC earlier this fall, they accomplished that feat due to a brilliant outing by goalkeeper Adrian Weinberg. The USA U-20 team starter made a career-high 20 saves to keep the Trojans to just 2 for 14 on power play opportunities. Weinberg has got the ability to carry this Cal team on any given match.
With the high stakes, I doubt fatigue will be an issue for the Cal Bears. Nonetheless, closing out the match strong would likely be a point of emphasis given how Cal lost to USC both two weeks ago and at the last NCAA tournament due to a poor fourth quarter.
Out of Cal’s 97 current team national titles, the most successful program that is sponsored by the NCAA is the Men’s Water Polo program. Cal’s 14 NCAA national titles lead all schools in this sport, although UCLA (12), Stanford (11), and USC (10) are not too far behind. Today is a golden opportunity to add to both counts.
2021 NCAA Men’s Water Polo National Championship Final
Possibly due to the lesser video quality, I am not sure why they do not have this full match available on YouTube yet. The NCAA has been good about putting full men’s water polo championship match on YouTube since Cal last won it all in 2016.