No.1 Cal Men's Water Polo wins awards, preps for MPSF tournament this weekend

The NCAA Tournament field will be announced on Sunday, March 7th

If you missed my Cal Men’s Water Polo updates after their second weekend or third weekend of play, you might have missed how the Califonia Golden Bears (7-3) have exceeded expectations to reclaim their usual place as the No.1 team in the country. Cal’s 14 NCAA titles are still the most by any school in this sport.

The Golden Bears are seeking their first NCAA tournament berth since 2017, when Peter Cutino Award winner and USA Rio “Calympian” Luca Cupido was still on the team. Those teams have another current USA Water Polo mainstay in prolific scorer Johnny Hooper. Cupido, Hooper, and the Golden Bears won the NCAA championship in 2016.

Coming off an off-2019 season when the Bears suffered losses to UCSB, UC Davis, Pepperdine, and Pacific in addition to the usual suspects, the winter 2021 Bears were picked last amongst the four California-based Pac-12 schools in the preseason. However, the Golden Bears surprised everyone but themselves by posting a 3-1 record over USC, a 3-1 record over UCLA, and a 1-1 record over Stanford (the 2019 NCAA champions) in the short season.

Matching one of the rare feat achieved by Luca Cupido was Cal sophomore attacker Nikolaos Papanikolaou. Papanikolaou just became the program’s 5th player to earned the MPSF Player of the Year honor.

Nicknamed the “Greek Freak” (confession, I have been copying and pasting his name rather than learn the spelling), Papanikolaou had 25 goals, 26 points, and 14 steals in 10 matches so far. He scored in every Cal match this year and earned 44 ejections (15 penalty shots), including 6 exclusions. Listed as the center on the team roster (mind that positions are often fluid in water polo), Papanikolaou had certainly been the center of the Cal attack in his two seasons as a Golden Bear. The 2019 MPSF Newcomer of the Year should be the current front-runner for the Peter Cutino Award.

Joining Nikolaos Papanikolaou on the All-MPSF First Team (each team has 10 players, including 1 goalkeeper), fellow Greek national and Cal team captain Nikos Delagrammatikas (yes, another copy and paste job) earned his spot by totaling 10 goals, four assists, and five steals from the 2-meter position (one of the two wing spot at the 2-meter line on the sides of the center). One also should not overlook his leadership during this atypical season.

Also on the First Team was junior utility Jack Deely (with an easier-to-spell name). Deely’s breakout season saw him tallied a team-high 29 points (17 goals and 12 assists) in the regular season. His 2.9 points-per-game ranked 5th in the conference (UCLA and USC did play some non-conference matches to pad their stats).

Three Cal Bears earned spots on the All-MPSF Second Team.

Garrett Dunn scored three goals and had three assists in the Cal victory over Stanford. The sophomore attacker totaled six goals and seven assists on the season.

Also with a Second Team honor, sophomore goalkeeper Adrian Weinberg had a second season as the primary Cal keeper. Weinberg had a 7-1 record with 104 total saves (according to the Cal press release, but just 90 on The FOSH website). Strong keeper play had always been pivotal in postseason, and Weinberg had shown the ability to make big saves that can turn a match around.

Edged by UCLA’s Mo Kenney for the MPSF Newcomer of the Year, Alika Naone earned a spot on the Second Team. Naone tallied 16 goals and 10 assists to tie Papanikolaou for 2nd on the team in points. The freshman attacker also recorded nine steals and was credited with a team-high 9 sprints wins.

Sophomore 2-meter Warren Loth earned a spot on the Honorable Mention team. Loth tallied seven goals and five steals on the season, including the game-winning OT goal over UCLA on February 21st with 44-seconds left. Loh also scored a pivotal OT goal against the UCLA Bruins in the Bears’ season opening victory.

Guiding his team back to the top, Cal head coach Kirk Everist rightfully deserved the MPSF Coach of the Year honor. Despite the program’s perpetual successes under the Cal alum and former USA “Calympian”, this was only Everist’s 2nd Coach of the Year award in 18 seasons that included 3 NCAA National Championships.


Barring a historic collegiate water polo upset (though I certainly would not mind USC losing to a Penn State Behrend or Austin College), the Cal Bears, with an opening round-bye, will face the USC Trojans in the MPSF semifinal on Saturday.

Yes, the MPSF has a team in Pennsylvannia (Penn State Behrend) and a team in Texas (Austin College, whose mascots are the Kangaroos). Of course, the final four will almost surely be down to Cal, UCLA, Stanford, and USC - making both the championship final with the automatic bid and the 3rd-place match on Sunday important for the NCAA tournament selection (more on this below).

This is the weekend schedule for the MPSF Tournament from LA:

MPSF TOURNAMENT SEEDS

  1. California

  2. UCLA

  3. Stanford

  4. USC

  5. Winner of PSB-Austin game (Mar. 5)

  6. Loser of PSB-Austin game (Mar. 5)

Friday, March 5
Penn State Behrend vs. Austin College (5/6 seed game)---9:00 am  
Game 1: 3 seed Stanford vs. 6 seed Austin/Penn St Behrend---1:00 pm 
Game 2: 4 seed USC vs. 5 seed Austin/Penn St. Behrend---4:00 pm             

Saturday, March 6
Game 3: 1 seed California vs. Game 2 winner (Semifinal)---11:00 am          
Game 4: 2 seed UCLA vs. Game 1 winner (Semifinal)---2:00 pm   

Sunday, March 7
Game 5: Losers Games 1 and 2 (5th-Place)---9:00 am                 
Game 6: Losers Games 3 and 4 (3rd-Place)---12:00 pm               
Game 7: Winners Games 3 and 4 (Championship)---3:00 pm

The matches will be available online for a fee.

MPSF TV (Subscription):
https://mpsports.org/watch
Daily Subscription: $ 6.95....Monthly Subscription: $9.95....Annual Subscription: $99.95


USC (4-7)

Despite a much worse record, USC matched Cal with 3 All-MPSF First Team selections. Their junior goalkeeper Nic Porter was the first team seletion over Cal’s Adrian Weinberg. Senior Jacob Mercep tallied 28 goals and 12 assists to also lead the conference in points. Two-meter Jake Ehrhardt recorded 13 goals on the year as their second leading scorer.

UCLA (6-5)

The Bruins are the hosts for the MPSF Championship this weekend. They got two attacckers on the All-MPSF First Team with senior attacker Nicolas Saveljic, conferenec best 29 goals, and junior attacker/utility Jake Cavano, who had 3 goals to lead the Bruins in their lone win over the Bears.

Sophomore keeper Bernardo Maurizi was also named to the All-MPSF Second Team along side Adrian Weinberg. Somewhat surprisingly, Maurizi had 8 assists from the goalkeeper spot (recent college water polo rule change no longer restricts the keeper to one half of the pool, though that likely had nothing to do with Maurizi’s outlet passing prowess). MPSF Newcomer of the Year Mo Kenney had 16 goals.

Two of the four matches between Cal and UCLA went to overtime this year. The two teams are quite evenly matched.

Stanford (3-3)

The defending NCAA champions graduated two-time Peter Cutino Winner Ben Hallock since their 2019 triumph. Stanford also had a slower start and fewer matches played due to county health restrictions.

Both of the Big Splashes were fairly one-sided. A motivated Cal team defeated Stanford 16-11 to wrap a perfect 3-0 weekend at USC. Jack Deely’s four goals led the way.

A tired Cal team fell behind early and lost 17-10 as the last match of the weekend at Stanford. The Bears made some bad turnovers early that turned into easy scoring chances that Adrian Weinberg could not prevent. This was also the last match of the regular season for the Bears.

On the All-MPSF First Team for the Cardinal were senior attacker Tyler Abramson, team high 13 goals, and junior attacker Quinn Woodhead.


What is at stake this year at the MPSF Tournament?

A decade ago, the MPSF Tournament was as grueling and as important as the NCAA Tournament that followed in 2 weeks. The four clear best teams in the country, Cal - Stanford - UCLA - USC, were fighting for that one automatic bid since there was only one at-large bid available. The lone at-large bid often became a toss-up between the tournament runner-upss and whoever had the best regular season.

The NCAA tournament was expanded in 2013 from 4 teams (3 automatic bids and 1 at-large bid) to 6 teams (4 automatic bids and 2 at-large bids). The format was further increased to 8 teams in 2017 by providing 2 more automatic bids to newly formed conferences. The extra at-large bid allowed another one of the Big Four to make the NCAA championships.

Currently, automatic bids are given to Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA), Golden Coast Conference (GCC), the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF), Northeast Water Polo Conference (NWPC), Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC), and the Western Water Polo Association (WWPA).

For this weird 2021 winter season, the NWPC (Brown, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, and St. Francis, Brooklyn) and SCIAC (California Institute of Technology, Chapman, Claremont-Mudd-Scrips, La Verne, Occidental, Pomona-Pitzer, Redlands, and Whittier) have decided to not compete. The NCAA had announced that the championship field will only be reduced if more than half of the teams do not compete. Even with those two conferences not playing and other strong teams like Pacific and Long Beach State sitting out, I believe that over 60% of the teams are still active this winter. I cannot find any information on if the NCAA will replace those two automatic bids with extra at-large teams or if they will just go back to a 6-team tournament.

From the NCAA page on this year’s National Championship:

The 2021 NC men's water polo championship runs from March 18-21, with all games at Uytengsu Aquatics Center in Los Angeles.

Teams who qualify for this year's tournament will be revealed on Sunday, March 7 via press release. Live coverage of the semifinals and final from March 20-21 will be streaming right here on NCAA.com.

The postponed 2020 men’s water polo championship were originally supposed to be held at Stanford. Clearly, the NCAA finds it easier to host this event at USC than at Stanford due to local health guidelines. Assuming that no changes are made to the future schedule, UCLA will host this fall while the 2022 NCAA men’s water polo championship will again take place in Berkeley.

Regardless of how the Golden Bears do this weekend, they will find out their fate on Sunday. Even in the 8-team format, there was a clear advantage for the top overall seed since it would only have to go through one of the other MPSF teams, and only in the championship finals. Of course, that may not be the case this year if the extra spots are kept and treated as at-large bids.

Nonetheless, the top-ranked Cal Bears will look to win this weekend tournament to earn the automatic bid and the top overall NCAA tournament seed. I would not be surprised if the team is as unsure but also unconcerned about the potential changes to the NCAA Men’s Water Polo tournament this year. Check back on Sunday night for a recap of this tournament as well as the reveal of Cal’s NCAA fate.

GO BEARS!