In a season where Cal’s football team failed to take the axe from Stanford, the women’s water polo team looked to get revenge by taking something else: a coveted top-three position in the nation. The Cardinal sat just one spot below the top of the leaderboard, with the Bears not far below. With two games against Stanford this past weekend, Cal had the opportunity to make a splash in the rankings.
On top of that, the blue and gold garnered extra motivation from Stanford’s status as de facto reigning champion, since the Cardinal won it all in 2019 and the 2020 championship was canceled due to the pandemic. But despite having two shots to take down Stanford, Cal was unable to come away with a victory in its home pool.
The two teams met at Spieker Aquatics Center on Saturday in front of a limited yet raucous Cal home crowd. Each player was able to invite a few guests to attend in compliance with a distanced seating arrangement. The crowd was hungry for a victory; they yelled at referees, screamed “Go Bears” and tried to trick Stanford by counting down the shot clock incorrectly.
For three periods, the crowd had something to cheer for. After some early passing struggles and a few fumbled catches, the Bears started to move the ball effectively. They got the ball into the post with ease, collapsing the defense. After Cal went down 4-2 in the second period, an inside pass drew a Stanford exclusion, setting up a Cecily Turner goal on the power play. The two squads went back and forth in the third, with Stanford scoring two quick goals in the waning moments of the period to take a 7-6 lead going into the final frame.
Once the fourth period started, the Cardinal wasted no time shutting up the buzzing crowd. How? By scoring five unanswered goals. They dashed the Bears spirits, and the few Stanford fans in the crowd quickly took all the energy from the home fans. After the final horn, Cal left the pool with a 13-8 loss. But with a rematch the next day, the Bears had a chance for revenge.
On Sunday, Cal came firing out the gates. Junior center Kitty Lynn Joustra gave the Bears the early spark they needed, scoring two early goals to give her team a 3-2 lead in the second period. But that lead would not last very long, as Stanford marched back to turn the tide in its favor once more.
Neither team would give up in what was one of the most competitive games of the season for the blue and gold. Whenever it looked as though one side might run away with the match, the other struck back. Although Stanford put 20 shots on goal compared to Cal’s 14, senior goalkeeper Cassidy Ball kept the Bears in it with a fantastic 50% save percentage. Ball even made an impact on the offensive end, taking the ball up the pool on the final offensive possession of the third period. As time wore on, it didn’t look like she would be able to do much. She was forced to fire a long shot, but it somehow beat the Cardinal goalie and went in. This came with a mere second left in the period, tying up the game at 7-7 going into the final period.
Stanford once again found momentum at the beginning of the fourth, but this time Cal was able to neutralize some of it. Stanford was up 10-8 with two and a half minutes left, but some great passing gave Cal an easy goal. Or not. The refs decided that a penalty occurred before the goal was scored, and it was wiped off the board. The crowd was deflated, but instead of giving up, junior attacker Elli Protopapas put the ball in the net for a goal that actually did count. 10-9 Stanford.
After a brilliant steal by Ball, Cal called timeout with a chance to tie things up in the final minute. The atmosphere at Spieker was electric, with the entire crowd anxious for a score. But in crushing fashion, an errant pass was stolen and the Cardinal was able to run out the clock for a win.
Close losses to bitter rivals are the worst type of defeats, but the Bears shouldn’t get too dejected. They are still a top four team in the country, and though they are yet to beat a top three team (USC, Stanford, UCLA), the Bears have given all three a serious run for their money. That said, with the national tournament just around the corner, it is vital for this team to find a way to turn these close defeats into victories.
Casey Grae covers women’s water polo and writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at email@example.com.