Cal Men's Water Polo draws USC/Bucknell in NCAA semifinal

NCAA announced the 6-teams that will vie for the national championship on March 18-21

After earning a bunch of MPSF conference honors, No.1 ranked California Golden Bears (8-4) again lost to rival Stanford with the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation championship on the line on Sunday afternoon.

For the 3rd consecutive season, a Big Splash determined the MPSF title. In 2018 and 2019, the Cal Bears really needed to win the automatic bid to make the NCAA tournament but saw their seasons ended in the MPSF final match. In this weird, delayed, abbreviated season with fewer automatic bids, all four California men’s water polo powerhouses made the postseason with three at-large bids available. The Golden Bears will likely get another shot at Stanford in the NCAA championship if the Bay Area schools can dispatch the LA schools in the NCAA semifinals.

The NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championship field was announced on Sunday evening. The six teams that made the field were Cal, Stanford (6-3), USC (6-8), UCLA (6-7), Cal Baptist (7-4) - the Western Water Polo Association winner, and Bucknell (4-1) - the Collegiate Water Polo Association winner. All of the competitions involving the 5 California schools and the lone Pennsylvania school will take place at Uytengsu Aquatics Center, the home of the USC Trojans.

Cal and Stanford will have first-round byes. Cal will await the winner of USC and Bucknell (it will be extremely shocking if it is not the USC Trojans) in one national semifinal. Stanford will play the winner between UCLA and Cal Baptist (also not expected to be a real competitive match) in the other half of the bracket. Because there was enough room for all four schools, Stanford did not gain any extra advantage for winning the MPSF tournament.

Factoring the results from this weekend’s MPSF tournament, the Cal Bears are 4-1 against USC, 3-1 against UCLA, and 1-2 against Stanford.

The two semifinal matches on March 20th and the championship final on March 21st will be streamed for free on NCAA.com.

MPSF Final on Sunday: Cal 8, Stanford 9

The Golden Bears started strong in this match, taking a 3-0 lead and 4-1 at the end of the first quarter. Stanford Cardinal managed to cut the Cal lead to just one goal at the half by scoring a pair of power-play goals. Stanford then pulled ahead 6-4 in the 3rd quarter, prompting Cal head coach Kirk Everist to draw a yellow card (Stanford head coach got a yellow card soon afterward as well). Nonetheless, Stanford grew their lead to 9-5 seconds into the 4th quarter. The Cal Bears can only get 3 goals in the remaining 7.5 minutes to fall one goal short.

The major difference in this match was Stanford’s 5 for 11 in power-play conversions. The Bears were only able to score one goal with a man advantage out of seven chances. No Cal Bear was able to score more than one goal, and Cal star Nikolao Papanikolaou was held goal-less. Marko Valecic led the Bears with 4 points with one goal and three assists.

For Stanford, they got two goals apiece from AJ Rossman and Larsen Weigle.

MPSF Semifinal on Saturday: Cal 11, USC 8

Although the USC Trojans got a quick start and held early leads of 2-0 and 3-1 in the first quarter, the California Golden Bears quickly responded with 4 straight goals to take a 5-3 lead at the end of 1st quarter. With a goal just before the halftime buzzer, the Bears took an 8-5 lead at the half. The Trojans could only get as close as a two-goal deficit in the second half.

Nikolaos Papanikolaou, Alika Naone, and George Avakian all earned a brace. Jack Deely had the team-high 5 points from one goal and four assists.

Following the match online, I was slightly concerned when the MPSF Player of the Year Papanikoolaou drew a second exclusion (a player is disqualified when they pick up 3 exclusions) in the middle of the second quarter, but the Greek sophomore played smart to never pick up a 3rd exclusion.

USC scored three goals on penalty shots. Jacob Mercep was their top player with four goals and one assist as well as five steals.

Cal goalkeeper Adrian Weinberg made 7 saves in this match and also assisted on two goals.

USC went on to defeat UCLA 11-7 in the 3rd place match.

GO BEARS!