Cal Men's Water Polo earns No.1 ranking after sweeping UCLA, USC, Stanford
Cal made USC a Bear Territory with a perfect 3-0 record in the 2nd weekend of action
As expected, Cal Men’s Water Polo sits alone at the top of the collegiate men’s water polo rankings in the latest CWPA poll released on Wednesday night. The Golden Bears (5-2) are coming off their 2nd weekend of play in this delayed season, where they posted a perfect 3-0 record against rivals UCLA (5-3), USC (2-5), and Stanford (1-2).
The 14 NCAA National Championships won by Cal Men’s Water Polo is the most for any Cal Athletics program. Note that while both Men’s Rugby and Men’s Rowing have more national titles, those are not governed by the NCAA. Cal also the most titles for any programs in the country in men’s water polo, although the Pac-12 rivals UCLA (11), Stanford (11), and USC (10) are not too far behind.
Since the Cal Bears last won it in 2016, the championship has gone to UCLA, USC, and Stanford over the past 3 seasons. One might say that the Cal Bears are due to add another championship.
Head Coach Kirk Everist’s squad is coming off two seasons where they were clearly a notch behind the other programs. The Bears were the odd team out with only 3 NCAA Championship berths (the MPSF conference winner and 2 at-large bids) available for the 4 rivals.
So far in the 2021 winter season, Cal has got superstar-level performances from their two sophomore studs. The 2019 MPSF Newcomer of the Year, Nikolaos Papanikolaou AKA The Greek Freak, has continued to score goals by a large volume from the center position, parked just 2-meter away from the net; his team-high 18 goals is currently 3rd best in the country. Showing a great all-around game, Papanikolaou is also the current national leader in field blocks (5) and is top-5 in steals (10). The Greek Freak should be on the shortlist for the National Player of the Year honor.
The sophomore goalkeeper Adrian Weinberg is also challenging to be the best in his position nationally. Weinberg had a season-high 15 saves against Stanford on Sunday and lead the country in save percentage (0.567), saves-per-game (13.6), and is 2nd in overall saves made (68). In addition to stopping shots, Weinberg also has 7 steals to prevent the opponents from even taking a shot. In the past, we have seen how a great goalkeeper can carry the team to victories in the conference and/or NCAA tournaments. Weinberg appears capable of matching those feats.
What really makes this Cal team scary is the improvements from junior Jack Deely and sophomore Garrett Dunn (younger brother of former Cal Rugby star Justin Dunn) as well as the impact contributions from freshmen Tommy Kennedy and Alika Naone.
Deely and Naone both have 10 goals apiece. Junior Joe Molina has contributed 9 goals. Deely is 2nd in the country with 11 assists. Dunn, Naone, and Molina have 7, 6, and 5 respectively, in the balanced Cal perimeter attack. Deely only trails his teammate Papanikolaou nationally with 4 field blocks.
Tommy Kennedy was awarded the MPSF Newcomer of the Week honor for contributing 7 points on the weekend, including his first collegiate goal. The extra production from Deely and Kennedy in the 2nd weekend compared to the 1st weekend was why the Bears improved from 2-2 to 3-0.
Bears also have gotten great all-around performances both offensively and defensively from senior captain Nikos Delagrammatikas.
After splitting 2 matches apiece against UCLA and USC in the opening weekend (so that the three teams were all tied for No.2 in the rankings) from the friendly confines of Spieker Aquatics Complex in Berkeley, Cal had their first road test at USC last weekend. Bears played the LA Schools on Saturday before a Big Splash on Sunday.
The opening match saw the Bears showing a lot of resiliency against the UCLA Bruins. Despite never leading in regulation, the Bears fought hard to equalize the match on 5 different occasions to send the match to overtime. Delagrammatikas came up big in OT with two goals to give the Bears the 11-8 victory.
Things were a bit easier in Saturday’s nightcap when the Bears defeated host USC Trojans by an 11-8 score. The good guys had an early 5-1 halftime lead and never looked back. Papanikolaous contributed 4 goals and 4 steals to lead the way.
Defending NCAA Champs Stanford is only playing in their first weekend of competition due to a late start to their training to follow the Santa Clara County health protocols. The Cardinal also has to replace two-time Peter Cutino (men’s water polo’s Heisman) trophy winner Ben Hallock this year. Hallock actually has an extra year of eligibility but opts to play with the US National Team. Bears had a relatively easy 16-11 win over the previously No.1 ranked Cardinal. Jack Deely’s 4 goals led 8 different Bears who scored. This was the Bears’ first win over Stanford since 2017.
If all goes according to plan, there will be three more weekends of men’s water polo action this winter. There is one more round-robin weekend of action against the same three opponents in two weeks at Stanford before the MPSF Championship in Los Angeles. Hopefully, the Golden Bears will make the NCAA Championship hosted by Stanford on March 20th-21st.
Stuck at 98 National Championships in history, Cal Athletics just might break the 100 team national titles threshold in late March with women’s swimming and diving championship on March 17th-20th and men’s swimming and diving championship on March 24th-27th.