Cal Men's Water Polo goes for NCAA title repeat vs. USC (Sunday, 3 PM PT, ESPNU)
Top-seed Cal will look to turn their home-pool advantage into a 16th NCAA championship
As expected, the top-seed Cal Bears had little trouble in the NCAA Men’s Water Polo semifinal against 4th-seed Pacific on a rainy Saturday afternoon from Berkeley. With a sold-out and vocal crowd behind them, Cal defeated Pacific 16-9 to move to just one win away from a second consecutive NCAA championship. Golden Bears will also look to extend the already NCAA-best 15 national championships to 16.
Cal Fans can watch the full replay of the NCAA semifinal here, on the NCAA page (which may require one to turn off Ad Blocks).
Pacific Tigers jumped out to a 1-0 lead early, but then the Golden Bears soon took over. In a heated pool that was creating fog on a cold, rainy Berkeley afternoon, Bears answered with three straight goals to lead 3-1 at the end of the first quarter.
Cal’s reigning Cutino Award winner Nikolaos Papanikolaou scored off a rebound to cap the scoring in the first 8-minute of play.
“Papa” added a transition goal in the second half to essentially clinch the match.
As told in the fall edition of the Cal Sports Quarterly, Nikolaos Papanikolaou became the best player in College Men’s Water Polo last year despite being held out of most practices due to a shoulder injury.
Papanikolaou was arguably the most dominant force in the college game last season. He led the ultra-competitive MPSF with 68 goals and 35 steals while registering a staggering 112 earned exclusions. He was also named the MPSF Player of the Year for the second straight year.
But Papanikolaou injured his shoulder early in the season and was limited to just swimming and conditioning in practice.
"I thought that was pretty impressive – his ability to play at that level without consistent reps every day," said Cal head coach Kirk Everist, the 2021 ACWPC National Coach of the Year. "We didn't want to risk the contact in practice."
Papanikolaou finally started joining his teammates in practice for the postseason and expectedly played a huge role in the Bears' run to their 15th NCAA crown. He was named the most valuable player of the NCAA Championship after Cal defeated USC 13-12 in the title match.
In the 2022 season, a presumably fully healthy Papanikolaou got much more offensive help from his teammates. Sophomore Max Casabella led the Bears in scoring and added four goals in Saturday’s semifinal.
However, the player of the match for the Bears was goalkeeper Adrian Weinberg. Weinberg made 13 saves and kept the Pacific offense from ever truly getting in rhythm, despite earning numerous power plays. In the end, Pacific were only able to capitalize on just 2 of their 10 power play opportunities.
Both Papanikolaou and Weinberg should return for their 5th season in 2023, just to help them prepare for the Paris 2024 Olympics for Greece and USA, respectively.
Senior Jack Deely added three goals while freshman Albert Ponferrada, who only earned his starting spot late in the season, added four assists. Ponferrada joins fellow Spaniards in Max Casabella and Roberto Valera in Cal’s regular rotation.
In the other semifinal, the schizophrenic USC Trojans jumped out to a big lead against UCLA and hold on for a 15-12 victory. Arguably, USC had more of a struggle in their 11-8 quarterfinal win over Princeton on Thursday.
USC had not won the national title since 2018, just months before long-time head coach Jovan Vavic was fired for his role in Operation Varsity Blues Scandal. Vavic was eventually found guilty of taking bribes in the scandal.
Of course, the Trojans program really has not missed a beat since Vavic was dismissed. They have just been inconsistent in 2022 by losing 6-times already, including twice to Cal. Yet by winning the MPSF Tournament (on their home pool), USC is actually the top-ranked team in the coaches poll coming into the week.
Against Princeton, the Trojans were only able to put away the overmatched opponents in the second half after holding a slim 6-5 halftime lead.
Graduate student but a newcomer to USC and the MPSF Massimo Di Martire is USC's scoring leader with 55 goals going into the NCAA Tournament. He added 5 goals in their semifinal win over UCLA. USC put that match away early in the third quarter with five unanswered goals. Kyle McKenney was the USC goalkeeper and made 7 saves.
In 2022, Cal defeated USC 11-10 on September 25th in the consolation match of the MPSF Open hosted by Stanford. Bears had an easier time in the MPSF regular season match, from the same pool as tomorrow, when they won 14-10 on October 15th.
With two storied programs, one can probably throw all these numbers out and just expect a tightly contested 32 minutes, if not even more time. But I would also not be surprised if the Cal Bears ride the energy of the home crowd to cruise to a repeat championship. Cal Men’s Water Polo is probably in the middle of an at-least three-year-long championship window. Only another championship banner would be a fitting end to this strong season.
California Golden Bears (22-2) vs. USC Trojans (20-6)
Where: Spieker Aquatics Complex (Berkeley, CA)
When: 3 PM PT, Sunday, December 4th
It will be a rematch of the 2021 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championship. Cal won that thriller 13-12 for the program’s 15th NCAA title. Cal fans can rewatch that full match in the embedded YouTube video below.
ROLL ON YOU BEARS!