Familiar foes stand between Cal Men's Water Polo and another NCAA title
Cal takes on UCLA in the NCAA semifinal on Saturday afternoon (4pm PT)
Outside of the Big Game victory, this fall semester has had fewer memorable moments than average across Cal Athletics. In fact, only one team made the postseason.
However, a strong weekend and two victories by Cal Men’s Water Polo would mean an NCAA leading 15th national championship for the program and a 98th team national championship for Cal. The Golden Bears just have to defeat the two Los Angeles-based rivals for their first national title since 2016.
Up first today in the NCAA national semifinal is a rematch of a November 13th contest. The California Golden Bears took down the UCLA Bruins comfortably by a 16-9 margin in front of a raucous home crowd. Coincidentally, that match took place quite early that day in anticipation of a Cal-USC football game that was eventually postponed to tonight due to COVID.
The Cal Bears also defeated UCLA 10-9 on September 25th, again from Berkeley in the MPSF Invitational semi-final.
Going back to the spring, for the delayed “2020 season” when Cal only played UCLA, USC, and Stanford both in the regular season and the postseason. Cal Bears won three times in four matches: 17-16, 7-10, 11-8, and 16-15.
Noting that three of the wins were by just one goal, Cal does have a splendid 5-1 record against their younger sibling campus in 2021. Somehow, UCLA is the one that won the “2020” NCAA title, where they did not face the Bears in the NCAA tournament, and will have the home pool advantage this weekend.
The two squads should be very familiar with one another. The Cal scorers know the tendencies of the UCLA Bruins goalkeeper Bernardo Maurizi while the UCLA team should also be very familiar with Cal goalkeeper Adrian Weinberg.
Between last season and this season, the Cal Bears got better with the addition of two impact freshmen in the MPSF Newcomer of the Year in Roberto Valera and fellow Spanish Junior National Team player Max Casabella. Valera had 4 goals and Casabella had 3 goals in that recent rout of the Bruins.
Bruins do add an impact player in Felix Brozyna-Vilim between the spring and now. The redshirt senior opted out of last season and was their leading scorer with 3 goals in UCLA’s MPSF championship winning match over Stanford two weekends ago. Brozyna-Vilim was tied for the Bruins’ team lead with 30 goals on the year, not counting UCLA’s 12-6 win over Princeton a few days ago to earn them this semifinal berth.
While water polo is obviously a team game, the two superstars to watch in the pool are UCLA’s reigning Peter Cutino Award winner, the water polo’s equivalent of the Heisman, in Nicolas Saveljic and Cal’s two-time MPSF Player of the Year in Nikolaos Papanikolaou (MPSF leading 64 goals, 12 better than the next player). USC’s Jacob Mercep was the third finalist for the last iteration of the award.
In that MPSF title win over Stanford, Saveljic was in foul trouble early when he was charged with two exclusions (three would have disqualified him for the rest of the match) and only scored one goal.
As much as the Cutino Award is an individual award, it will most likely be going to the player who helped his team to the NCAA title this weekend.
The Daily Cal has a nice feature on Cal Men’s Water Polo’s Greek star Nikolaos Papanikolaou. “Papa” is looking to not just win the NCAA title (and the Cutino Award) this year in his junior year but also repeat the feat in 2022 when Berkeley will be the site of the NCAA championship. Playing the center position right in front of the net, Papa has been Cal’s leading scorer on the season but actually has not contributed that many goals against the Bruins (but given the Cal record in those matches, it was not necessary). Instead of scoring, Papa has been proficient in drawing exclusions and earning power plays for the Cal squad - he leads the MPSF in exclusions drawn on the season.
There are differences between playing center in Greece and in America as well, but Papanikolaou found a way to bring his teammates the best of both worlds. In Greece, where the main objective of centers is to earn exclusions, games can get way more rough and physical. His experience back home has landed him at the top of the leaderboard for total earned ejections this season.
“The referee doesn’t see what is happening underwater,” Papanikolaou said. “And under the water, that’s where things get really physical because anything is legal as long as the ref doesn’t see it.”
In the United States, where student-athletes are usually the same age as him, he tries to get a hold of the ball to shoot whenever he can. Water polo is a sport where practice makes perfect, and Papanikolaou has the “Midas touch” — everything he touches turns into a goal.
“His humility is inspiring,” said his teammate Nikos Delagrammatikas. “He will joke around, but he never brags, and that’s something that players should look up to.”
Despite the obvious pressures that come with playing center, Papanikolaou always finds a way to steer clear of the stress that comes with being a top-tier athlete. His pregame routine involves talking with his family and teammates, and listening to music — Greek rap, American hip-hop or anything that has an upbeat, hyped-up tempo — from the playlists that he’s created depending on his mood to the opponent his team is about to face.
“I don’t like seeing people being stressed before a game,” Papanikolaou said. “I like being relaxed, and (to) listen to my music, make some jokes and talk to my teammates.”
Riding the potent offense to a 3-0 regular season record and then No.1 ranking in the country, Cal also has Jack Deely (43 goals) and Miles O’Brien-Schridde (38 goals) to go with the freshmen duo of Valera (40 goals) and Casabella (34 goals) atop the MPSF scoring leaderboard behind Papa.
Then again, Cal is now the No.3 ranked team coming off two close losses at the MPSF Tournament. UCLA, who won the tournament, and USC, who beat Cal in the 3rd place match, are tied for No.1 in the coaches’ poll.
While the ranking is inconsequential to who will win this weekend (outside the fact that USC earned the top-seed in this tournament ahead of Cal and has a significantly easier semifinal match against UC Davis today), an optimistic Cal fan would hope the two narrow losses will mean a more focused and more deadly Cal squad this weekend. Golden Bears were unable to hold on to a late lead against Stanford in the MPSF semifinal before falling in OT. A bad stretch in the 4th quarter against USC was the difference in the MPSF 3rd-place match.
Cal does have the versatile senior leader in Nikos Delagrammatikas, who is capable of being the shutdown defensive player if needed. When Cal last won the NCAA title in 2016, eventual Peter Cutino Award winner and USA “Calympian” star Luca Cupido was arguably more valuable defensively than the goals scored.
Delagrammatikas talked about how the team has been locked in recent days and will look to be even more focused defensively this weekend in the short interview below.
The home pool advantage may be worth half a goal for the UCLA Bruins, but I would like to think that the Cal Bears are more than capable of compensating for that, even if all three teams between Cal, UCLA, and USC are very capable of winning the national championship this weekend.
Execution and luck will decide who will hoist the NCAA trophy on Sunday afternoon.
Why not the Cal Bears?
NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championship
Where: Spieker Aquatics Center (UCLA)
Saturday, December 4th
CAL (20-4) VS. UCLA (20-3) | 4 P.M. PT
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Sunday, December 5
CAL/UCLA vs. USC/UC Davis, 2 P.M. PT
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