BERKELEY - In most sports, returning 15 players to a team that advanced to the conference championship game and finished the season ranked No. 3 in the country would be cause for extreme optimism.
But in the rugged world of Mountain Pacific Sports Federation men’s water polo, such optimism must always be tempered.
Make no mistake, Cal’s men’s water polo team was feeling good about itself as it held its first practice of the 2013 season Wednesday at Spieker Pool. But with programs like USC, Stanford, Pacific and UCLA always looming, even the most experienced and most talented teams can be humbled in a heartbeat.
“Every game is the seventh game of the World Series,” said Cal coach Kirk Everist, who has led the Bears to two NCAA titles. “It’s all these knockout games. The intensity level is pretty high. The anxiety level can be pretty high as players and coaches.”
Among the Bears sizeable returning nucleus, they feature five All-Americans. Still, Cal was picked to finish fourth in the preseason MPSF poll.
“For our sport, this is a little bit like hanging out in the SEC for college football,” Everist said. “First you have Florida, then Georgia, then Alabama. But you know you might have a shot to back into it if you stumble early because of our conference. It’s a hard gauntlet to run. You can’t let one game affect the next game. People beat each other all the time, so you can play your way back in.”
Leading the returning core is 2012 First Team All-American Collin Smith, who led the Bears with 61 goals last year. Second Team All-American Aleksa Saponjic is also back, as are All-American honorable mentions Hunter Gettelfinger, Jon Sibley and Colin Mulcahy.
The Bears got better at the end of last season, winning seven straight games before falling to USC in the MPSF Championship match. Included in that run was a win over No. 2 UCLA in the MPSF semifinals.
“We’ve got a good team,” Everist said. “But it’s going to be super competitive. It always is. This is a good team and if we can play like we did at the end of last year, we’ll be tough to beat and we’ll be in the game. They’re so close. You have to get a little luck. There’s a lot to it, but we’ll be right there.”
The Bears have 14 players that played in the MPSF title match last season and a 15th – Ayal Keren – coming back from a redshirt season. Keren was an important part of Cal’s 2011 team with 18 goals.
The Bears also welcome five freshmen to the roster. With such a large number of returning players, playing time may be hard to come by for them. But Everist is looking forward to finding out.
“You’re hoping that over the first few weeks you get some of the younger players to step up and be aggressive and plant themselves into an opportunity to help this team,” Everist said. “Every year is a little bit different. They dynamic of the team, the style of play will change slightly based on personnel. You’re looking at the incoming kids to see if someone can augment what we’re trying to accomplish right now.”
The Bears open the season Sept. 7 at the Triton Invitational.