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Cal Men's Water Polo repeats as NCAA Champs in thrilling fashion
Bears score 5-straight goals in the final 6-minutes to shock USC Trojans
For the Cal fans in the sold-out Spieker Aquatic Complex or watching live on ESPNU on Sunday afternoon, the improbable 13-12 Cal victory led by the Herculean effort of seven goals by Nikolaos “Papa” Papanikolaou is something that they will not soon forget. For the Cal star players as well as head coach Kirk Everist, it was all a blur that culminated in a massive pool party in Bear Territory.
A never-give-up attitude of the defending NCAA champions plus the catalysis that was the partisan home crowd’s belief created the perfect storm for the California Golden Bears in the last 6-minutes of the 2022 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championship Final.
"That was insane," said Cal head coach Kirk Everist. "I'm having trouble remembering exactly what happened. I would be hard-pressed to remember a game where a team had to really pull something completely out of nowhere to win a championship. It's a testament to the team to be able to do that in that moment."
“In that last 5-and-a-half minutes, you could hear the crowd, feel the crowd, and you could see the guys get a little more energy. That propelled us forward."
When it was all over, Cal Men’s Water Polo had extended their NCAA lead in championships to 16 by repeating as champions. Cal Athletics now got 101 team national titles across all sports. Cal Men’s Water Polo is the most successful program at Cal out of all those governed by the NCAA1. In his 21st season at the helm of the program, Kirk Everist had led the Bears to a 5th national championship.
Cal fans can check out the highlights of the match on the NCAA’s YouTube page.
For those who wants to see (or relive) the full comeback, you can watch it on ESPN+ (link). The 1:29.26 mark is a good place to start.
With about 6-minutes left in regulation, the California Golden Bears found themselves in the tough position of trailing 12-8 to the University of Southern California Trojans. With no way to stop the clock (such as fouling in basketball) and each possession burning around 30 seconds on the clock, Bears knew that they had to cash in on almost all possessions left AND stop the Trojans from scoring to have a chance.
The possession that started the turnaround did not start out well. The frustrated Cal offense saw their first shot field blocked (but the Bears retain the ball) and a scramble for the loose ball after the second shot resulted in only a regular foul (when a penalty for the Bears was a plausible outcome). Roberto Valera, who is not done in this match, found the back of the net for the 4th time to put the Bears within 3 with 5:41.
On the ensuing USC possession, Papanikolaou used his reach to steal the ball from a pass to USC’s Jake Ehrhardt. To the other end of the pool, senior Jack Deely found “Papa” on a no-look backward one-timer to put the Bears within 2. The home crowd shifted up to another level at this point in response to a fired-up Papanikolaou.
Cal goalkeeper Adrian Weinberg stopped USC’s next shot attempt, and George Avakian rather than Papanikolaou finally earned that elusive third (and last) exclusion on Jake Ehrhardt. Papa had battled Ehrhardt, USC’s lone current Team USA member, all match long at the 2-meter position. While Ehrhardt got two exclusions before the half, the referee was reluctant to give him that third one that would disqualify him for the rest of the match until then. Ehrhardt, who had scored two goals and was one of the key offensive players for the Trojans, was done with 3.5 minutes to go.
Cal capitalized on this power play with Papanikolaou scoring his sixth goal of the match on yet another assist from Deely. The familiarity between the two long-time teammates is undeniable.
Of course, all of the good work by the Bears on the offensive end could be quickly undone if the Trojans answered with a goal. Maybe it was the pressure or it was the home crowd, a forced pass inside turned into a Weinberg steal and the Bears got the chance to equalize.
Bears actually got a 6-on-4 power play opportunity only to see that end on a mishandled ball on the otherwise very reliable Deely. But then a huge break as Trojans made an inexplicable substitution mistake that not only gave the ball but a power play to Cal. When Spanish freshman Ponferrada’s shot was deflected, who else but Papanikolaou would be in a position to tip the ball into the goal to tie this championship final?
With the match tied and just a minute left in regulation, Cal will get their 5th unanswered goal in the following sequence. Weinberg made the save to stop a Trojan power play and then quickly fed the ball to Roberto Valera in transition. Valera found the back of the net to give Cal a 13-12 lead with 41 seconds left!
Roberto Valera, the 2021 MPSF Newcomer of the Year, might have been overshadowed in the 2022 regular season by fellow Spanish sophomore Max Casabella, but Valera’s four-goal output in the championship final was clutch. Valera also scored a hat trick in the championship final last year. Cal has really benefited from having a Spain-to-Berkeley pipeline with this pair of Spanish sophomores as well as Spanish freshman Albert Ponferrada.
Cal had to make another stop though. Despite USC earning a power play, a bobble at the 2-meter allowed Weinberg, a Team USA player, to steal the ball. Fittingly, Papanikolaou held on to the ball to kill the final 7 seconds to keep the NCAA Men’s Water Polo title in Berkeley!
Both Papanikolaou and Deely were surprised to learn that “Papa” had tied his career-high with 7-goals. That was enough goals to bump Everist, a Cal alum who had also won two Championships as a player, off 5th place in the Cal All-Time goal list. Everist would happily take this championship instead, of course.
Papanikolaou got the Bears going early with a hat-trick already in the first quarter. With Cal’s regular season scoring leader, Max Casabella, having a bad shooting game from the outside (1 for 4), Cal hit a scoring lull in the middle two quarters.
The championship final was a very physical affair with plenty of exclusions called on both sides. USC took the lead with a strong second quarter by making some tough outside shots. They stayed ahead of the Bears by converting power plays with easy feeds to the extra man right in front of the cage. Despite having 6 losses on the year, USC really turned around their season late by winning the automatic bid, which they need to make the NCAA tournament. The Trojans coach and senior captains were all really proud of what they had accomplished, but credit Cal and Papanikolaou for being the better team and player in the final minutes of the season.
With the all-time great performance in the championship final that earned him the NCAA Championship MVP, it would be shocking if Nikolaos Papanikolaou is not named the Cutino Award winner next spring for the second consecutive year. “Papa” would be the first Cal repeat champion of the college water polo’s most prestigious prize. Papanikolaou is already one of the top-3 players to wear the Cal speedo. He has one more year to shatter all of the records.
13-12 Cal over USC is the same score for both the 2021 and 2022 championship finals. While Cal managed to repeat and spent the most time as the top-ranked team in the country, all four of Cal, USC, UCLA, and Stanford (who didn’t even make the NCAA tournament despite being the only team to beat Cal) had spent time as the top team. The dominance of the four California schools should remain for the foreseeable future, even if Cal will be in a great position to three-peat in 2023.
Just like last year, Cal will need to replace a senior leader. This past offseason, Cal graduated Nikos Delagrammatikas, a fellow Greek national team teammate of Papanikolaou. Cal Bears will need to replace Jack Deely next year.
Deely is arguably one of the best passers ever in Cal Men’s Water Polo history. Kirk Everist said that Deely probably has got the Cal record, because assist was not a well-kept stat in collegiate water polo until recently.
Nonetheless, with Papa and Weinberg back for another run and plenty of young talent looking for their turn to shine, Cal has a good chance to run it back in 2023 with the core of the squad back.
When asked about what he will work on this offseason to make sure that Cal can three-peat in 2023, Papanikolaou began to list a number of things (more strength, shooting with the left hand, passing, etc.). Everist and Deely were quick to tell him to enjoy the moment. Spieker Pool will be “Papa’s” house for another season. If you missed it this year, be sure to go see Papanikolaou do his thing in 2023. I was sure glad to have made the trip back to Berkeley to experience this victory in person. Papanikolaou just might be the best ever for a program with plenty of legends already.
ROLL ON YOU BEARS!
Cal Rugby (33 titles) and Cal Men’s Crew (17 titles), the two oldest programs on campus, are competing in sports that are NOT governed by the NCAA