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Quest for National Title No.99 - Part 1
Cal Women's Tennis upsets then No.2 Pepperdine on the road last weekend
It has been about two months since Cal Men’s Water Polo won the program’s 15th NCAA national championship in a thrilling win over USC. That national title was the 98th team national championship in the long Cal Athletics history.
By just having a reasonable amount of luck, Cal could reach that triple-digit milestone in team national titles this school year.
With a bit of early-season results in hand, I will cover, in these next three posts, the programs with the best chance to win the next national championship. Even casual Cal fans are probably not surprised that the winter/spring semesters have been the source of the most national titles in Cal history thus far. I will also restrict this series of posts to programs that have already started play. By the end of the school year (in late May/early June), Cal Men’s Rowing, Women’s Rowing, as well as Rugby 7s are perennial national title contenders as well.
The list of teams covered is listed in chronological order of their national title opportunity. Part 1 of this series will cover Cal Women’s Tennis and Women’s Swimming and Diving.
Cal Women’s Tennis
National Title Count: 1 (2016 ITA Indoor)
ITA Indoor National Championship: February 11-14 (Madison, Wisconsin)
NCAA National Championship: May 19-28 (Champaign, Illinois)
The ITA Kick-off weekend is this Friday and Saturday for the Cal Bears from the Hellman Tennis Complex on campus.
Friday result: No.4 Cal (3-0) 4, BYU (1-4) 0
Cal will take on the winner between San Diego (1-0) and Vanderbilt (2-0) (scheduled for Friday at 2 p.m.) on Saturday at 1 p.m for a spot in the ITA Championship Sweet 16.
For the collegiate tennis schedule, players typically compete as individuals during the fall before the start of team dual meet season when the calendar flips over to a new year. Shortly after that, the 64-team ITA Indoor tournament will take place. While this “national championship” is no doubt less prestigious than the NCAA national championship later in the season, it is still a very tough competition. This is also a big enough deal (particularly traditionally) to be included in the Cal national championship count. Unlike the NCAA, the ITA has to use the previous season’s rankings in pre-determining the top-16 seeds. With January’s winter weather causing travel disruption on some occasions, there have been situations where the competitions of the preliminary rounds were canceled, and the seeded home team advanced automatically to the final 16.
Cal has been a pretty consistent top-16 squad for the past 15+ years. The high point of this era might arguably be the back-to-back NCAA runner-ups in 2008 and 2009. The tournament where everything came together was the 2016 ITA Indoor title run.
This particular squad of Cal Bears has also experienced a successful tournament run in the Pac-12 Championship last spring. The Bears defeated UCLA for the conference title.
Fueling Cal’s stay as a women’s tennis power were some brilliant individual players. Cal got the NCAA doubles champ in 2009 with Mari Andersson and Jana Juricova. Juricova also won the 2011 singles title. Cal also got the 2014 NCAA singles runner-up in Lynn Chi, when she lost in the final to Virginia’s Danielle Collins. Tennis fans who have followed the Australian Open this week will know that Collins, a rare collegiate tennis player to have further success in the professional scene, has just made her first Grand Slam final.
Cal upsets No.2 Pepperdine on the road
No.2 Pepperdine is coming off a season where they made the NCAA Championship final. No.9 Cal is an experienced squad with the injection of two impact freshmen. Golden Bears put the collegiate tennis world on notice with a big upset on the road last Saturday.
No. 9 California (2-0) defeated No. 2 Pepperdine (0-1), 4-3
Jan. 22, 2022, in Malibu, Calif.
Ralphs-Straus Tennis Center
1. No. 11 Victoria Flores/Lisa Zaar (Pepperdine) vs. Haley Giavara/Valentina Ivanov (Cal), 5-2 (Unfinished)
2. Savanna Broadus/Janice Tjen (Pepperdine) def. No. 27 Jessica Alsola/Erin Richardson (Cal), 6-2
3. Shiori Fukuda/Anastasia Iamachkine (Pepperdine) def. Hannah Viller Moeller/Katja Wiersholm (Cal), 6-0*
Order of finish –2, 3*
*Clinched the doubles point
1. No. 31 Shiori Fukuda (Pepperdine) def. Haley Giavara (Cal), 6-1, 5-7, 7-5
2. No. 10 Lisa Zaar (Pepperdine) def. No. 108 Valentina Ivanov (Cal), 6-2, 6-2
3. No. 110 Jessica Alsola (Cal) def. No. 30 Victoria Flores (Pepperdine), 6-3, 7-6(5)
4. Julia Rosenqvist (Cal) def. No. 93 Janice Tjen (Pepperdine), 6-2, 6-3
5. Katja Wiersholm (Cal) def. Nikki Redelijk (Pepperdine), 7-5, 7-5^
6. Hannah Viller Moeller (Cal) def. No. 36 Savannah Broadus (Pepperdine), 6-1, 6-3
Order of finish – 6, 4, 2, 3, 1, 5
^Clinched the overall match
Before we praise the Bears more, I will point out that Pepperdine did see a turnover of half of their roster since last year. Their No.4, No.5, and No.6 singles players from the NCAA championship match are the ones who remained. The Waves also added two graduate students transfers to the mix.
On the other hand, Pepperdine does have had a great fall season in that 5 of the 6 players in the singles lineup are ranked in the top-100.
Cal only has two players with a ranking in the lineup - junior Valentina Ivanov and freshman Jessica Alsola. Alsola made it all the way to the ITA Northwest Regional semifinal this past fall to earn a spot as the No.3 singles player. Her upset win over No.30 Victoria Flores earned Alsola the Pac-12 Player of the Week honor.
The other newcomer who made a mark is freshman Katja Wiersholm, who has clinched both of Cal’s dual season wins. Wiersholm has just joined the team this semester after graduating from high school early. The early enrollee carries the pedigree of a top-10 ranked recruit. Wiersholm took out an experienced Pepperdine player who played in the NCAA championship last May.
The rest of the Cal lineup should be familiar names for Cal fans. Haley Giavara returns to be the top singles player. Giavara could have clinched the Cal win at Pepperdine but eventually lost in three sets. Previous No.1 player Julia Rosenqvist had no problem winning her match at No.4 singles. Hannah Viller Moeller won in straight set over Pepperdine’s prized freshman recruit at No.6 singles. Jada Bui, a regular in the lineup last year and a former top recruit who has competed as a junior at both the French and Australian Opens, has yet to play this spring.
It is a great sign that in this win, the Bears managed to take 4 singles matches in straight sets.
Quality depth more than top talent is the key to winning a tennis dual match. Cal got the talent at the top who can win their share of matches against anyone, but a successful season will be decided by the steadiness in the back end of the lineup. The Pac-12 title won by this team last spring could just be the confidence booster that takes this Bears team to the next level; one would also expect the two impact freshmen to improve with more seasoning at the college level.
The Rest of the Competition
North Carolina Tar Heels are the two-time reigning champions of the ITA Indoor Championships. UNC is currently ranked 2nd in the country behind the Texas Longhorns. North Carolina also ended Cal’s run at the NCAA last year in the Round of 16. North Carolina defeated Texas in the ITA Indoor final last year. Texas, won the bigger prize, winning the NCAA championship over Pepperdine. Currently, Texas only has two players ranked in the top-125 of the ITA singles ranking.
It would appear that the ITA held off on creating the bracket for this championship until this week. Ranked as the No.3 team in the country, Georgia got the 3rd seed ahead of UCLA, who is tied with Cal at No.4. Georgia was supposed to play North Carolina last weekend but that match was canceled due to COVID within the Georgia program.
Cal effectively got the 5th overall seed spot and likely will face the winner out of the Ohio State regional (11th ranked Buckeyes with No.20 Tennessee, No.21 LSU, and No.24 Oklahoma State) in the Sweet 16 stage (assuming that there is no re-seeding of the bracket for the final 16). The big win last weekend has resulted in a fairly favorable draw for the Golden Bears.
The ITA kick-off regional sites were pre-determined from the results of last year. The best team that will have to go on the road this year is No.15 USC in the regional hosted by No.22 Baylor.
The best site to track the ITA Indoor Championships results is apparently here. (By the way, the Cal men did not make the field of 64 after basically not playing last season and not doing enough this year to make the rankings). The Golden Bears should have a favorable path to the Elite 8 round, with a solid shot at making the top-4 if not better.
Cal Women’s Swimming and Diving
National Title Count: 4 (most recent: 2015)
NCAA National Championship: March 16-19 (Atlanta, Georgia)
A perennial championship contender under head coach Teri McKeever, Cal saw the end of their streak last spring of finishing in the top-3 for 11 straight years. Finishing 4th, Cal does still have an impressive streak of finishing in the top-5 for the past 15 years.
During this period, Cal earned both 4 NCAA team titles and finished 2nd another 4 times. Cal has also won 5 Pac-12 team titles, including the one last year.
Cal (3-1) off to another solid season
Thirteen Cal Bears made the NCAA Championships last year. All of them are back, including three “Calympians” in Robin Neumann (The Netherlands), Alicia Wilson (Great Britain), and Ema Rajic (Croatia); the latter two competed in Tokyo last year. Senior Isabel Ivey is Cal’s best swimmer, showing her versatility by going 5 for 5 on events (100 Back, 50 Free, 200 IM, 100 Fly, 200 Free) this past weekend when the Bears routed the Arizona schools, winning 11 of 14 events over Arizona and 13 of 14 events over ASU. Ivey is a serious contender to win multiple individual NCAA titles this March. Sophomore Isabelle Stadden is one of the best backstrokers in the world; she won a Bronze in 200 Back at the World Shortcourse Championship this past summer. Junior Rachel Klinker emerged as a butterfly national contender last year. Fellow junior Ayla Spitz was a pleasant surprise with a 5th overall finish in 500 Free last year.
Among the newcomers, Leah Polonsky has already made her mark with a strong showing at the Minnesota Invitational last December. Polonsky has already earned spots in Cal’s all-time top-10 in three events: 100 Breast, 200 Breast, and 400 IM. While these events are never Cal’s strong suit, that’s still quite an impressive feat for a freshman. Other Cal freshmen with current top-25 in NCAA times are Mia Kragh, Lizzy Cook, and Mia Motekaitis. Fanni Fabian from Hungary is another big name recruit of this freshman class.
The Bears will race down in LA this weekend against USC today (Friday) and UCLA on Saturday.
The rest of the competition
Cal has already lost a dual meet to No.1 ranked Virginia last fall. Virginia, who won the NCAA title for the first time last year, returned their two US Olympic Medalists in Kate Douglass and Alex Walsh thanks to the new NIL rule. Stanford, on the other hand, gained prominent Olympians this year with the enrollment of Regan Smith (3 medals in Tokyo) and Torrie Huske (1 medal) as freshmen and the return of Canadian Olympian Taylor Ruck (4 medals over 2 Olympics).
Given the star powers on the other squads, it is hard to see Cal win the NCAA team title this year. However, if the points are split just right, Cal could be the dark horse that somehow emerges from this close battle with the victory. A more realistic expectation is for Cal to just extend their top-5 finish streak in 2022.