The 2019 campaign demanded patience, resilience and grit from the Cal men’s water polo team. It was a season that got off to an undesirable start, delivered a number of exhausting overtime games and pitted the Bears against formidable opponents.
While it didn’t manage to make the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year, Cal’s young squad collected itself in spite of early difficulties en route to a second-place finish at the MPSF Championships.
Early on, it didn’t seem that the Bears could manage this feat. They opened the season with a 3-3 record, falling to UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis and Pacific. These opponents were ranked at the time and by the season’s end, losing to all three in the span of four games marked a particularly difficult start to Cal’s season.
The Bears’ early struggles could be attributed to their youth; 19 of Cal’s 26 rostered players were underclassmen.
In the face of this adversity, the team stayed composed.
“They just didn’t give up,” said head coach Kirk Everist. “They kept playing the right way, kept fighting and battling for each other, stayed together and didn’t make it an individual battle. They were playing for each other and with each other.”
This selfless, never-say-die mentality was fundamental in helping Cal through numerous tough points in the season. It got the team through that shaky start, as well as overtime losses to Pepperdine and UCSB in consecutive games and a blowout loss to Stanford toward the end of the regular season.
As 2019 drew to a close, freshmen like Nikolaos Papanikolaou and Adrian Weinberg became more and more impactful. Papanikolaou finished with the second-highest goal and point totals on the team, trailing only senior Safak Simsek in both categories.
Meanwhile, Weinberg’s solid play in goal established him as one of the nation’s top keepers. He accumulated 217 saves over the span of 22 starts and turned in some of his best performances in the biggest games of the season.
Perhaps Weinberg’s best game came against then-No. 1 USC in the MPSF Championships. Few would dispute that the Bears’ upset of the Trojans in this match was the highlight of their season, and none could deny that Weinberg played a pivotal role in that win.
At several points in the year, a victory over USC in the MPSF semifinals seemed improbable at best.
The Bears never managed to pull off a true upset for the duration of the regular season, despite many near-successes. They lost to UCLA twice — first by 3 goals, then by just 1. Cal also lost to USC twice, each time by a single score. The Bears’ only regular-season meeting with the Stanford Cardinal was a terribly lopsided affair, and not in their favor.
But Cal was never discouraged. After its regular-season finale — which was also its second close loss at the hands of USC — redshirt senior Jordan Hoover expressed his pride in how the team competed.
“I’m really glad that we showed to ourselves that we can do this. We can play with (USC), we can battle them and make them take it from us,” Hoover said.
By that time, the Bears knew they would be facing the Trojans in the MPSF semifinals, and clearly, they were not intimidated.
Sure enough, Cal was at its best when the teams met with a ticket to the MPSF finals on the line. Weinberg collected 13 saves and allowed just 9 goals in what was arguably his best game of the season.
On the offensive end, Hoover — an efficient yet high volume scorer — scored a hat trick, and the Bears managed to pull off their most impressive win in what was their most important game up to that point.
Cal gave its best effort in the MPSF final, but was overpowered down the stretch by archrival Stanford. The Bears couldn’t quite muster a second consecutive upset, but put up a fight until the bitter end.
Hoover and Simsek were named to the MPSF All-Tournament Team. Not only did the duo perform at an elite level over the course of the tournament; they provided much-needed veteran leadership for an exceedingly young squad throughout the entirety of the 2019 season.
With a win over USC in the MPSF Championships, Cal peaked at the right time. 2019 was a season full of ups and downs, but in the end, the Bears managed to come together, shock the water polo world and nab second place in their conference to salvage what could have been a wasted season.
As the youthful Cal squad enters next season with another year of experience, there’s much reason for optimism.
Ethan Moutes covers men’s water polo. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.