By Ryan McDonald, Daily Cal Staff Writer
This story was originally published in the Daily Californian on Thursday, November 29, 2007. Click here for original version.
Reprinted by permission.
The Cal men's water polo team has 12 national titles--more than any other program in the country. It has molded Olympians, seen legendary coaches and garnered countless awards. Come game time, don't mention that to Michael Sharf.
With 95 goals scored coming into this weekend's NCAA tournament, the Bears' attacker has tied two-meter man Chris Humbert's school record for goals in a season.
But the All-American hasn't clawed his way into the record books by thinking about his place in water polo history. He's done it by focusing on the moment at hand.
"It's one play," says Sharf. "Thinking about the game, the season, the program and tradition will just make things stressful."
Sharf has honed his focus over four years at Cal, parlaying knowledge and concentration into numerous accolades while helping to put his team in the hunt for yet another national title.
In a conference as tight and competitive as the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, Sharf's success has not come easily, with talented defenses and goalies making his job harder.
The fact that Sharf has been able to produce in such a challenging atmosphere makes his success all the more impressive.
"Anybody that scores that much is going to have a decent amount of failures," says coach Kirk Everist. "You can't focus on a bad day or a bad quarter. Michael's got that short memory."
Sharf dove into the sport at an early age, doing recreational swimming and club water polo in his native Orinda, Calif.
In his first two years of high school water polo, he was coached by none other than Everist, Cal's current head coach.
Everist points out that while Sharf has always been a presence for the Bears--scoring 48 goals in last year's championship campaign--the look of this season's team has allowed him to explode offensively.
"Michael has been kind of let out of the box," says Everist. "It's a significant jump."
Sharf didn't redshirt his freshman year, and managed to frustrate opponents on a number of occasions.
"I remember a practice game against UCLA before freshman year started," says Sharf. "I actually scored three goals and the UCLA coach yelled at his players that a high school player had scored three goals on them."
He managed to net another hat trick in the subsequent meeting of the schools, which he says, even to today, makes Bruins players especially physical with him.
Such attention is a common difficulty for the attacker, who said that it was in some ways easier to score as a freshman because the opposing team wasn't expecting it.
Now, when facing tough opponents, Sharf has to complement his athleticism with focus and concentration.
In a game earlier this season at UCLA's Rose Bowl Aquatics Center, where Cal had been winless for several years, the attacker scored the game-winning goal off an acrobatic spin move in the closing seconds.
"I knew it was an important game--we hadn't won there for a long time," Sharf says. "At an earlier age, I might have been thinking about that."
Opponents and teammates alike say that Sharf's ability to deal with pressure emerges in big games.
"He's a go-to guy, and he responds well to it," says Adam Hewko, a Pepperdine two-meter man and teammate of Sharf's on the U.S. national team. "All season, he's made that shot when the team has needed it."
Fellow Bears attacker Frank Reynolds, who also played on the national team, echoed Hewko's comments.
"I think he blocks out everything that's going on prior to that play," Reynolds said. "He just focuses on that one shot, that one assist, that one pick."
But coming into the NCAA tournament fresh from an impressive 12-9 victory over Stanford, where Sharf scored three goals, Cal presents a challenge to other teams in part because its counterattack-heavy offense is more complex than just Sharf.
Everist points out that while Sharf did net a hat trick against the Cardinal, seven other players scored in the match, including two goals apiece from attacker Zac Monsees and utility player Jeff Tyrrell.
"He's done a great job of not completely becoming the focus of our offense," says Everist. "If you watch, we're not like (UC) Irvine, trying to isolate one player. It's not `Get the ball to Kobe.'"
It's a balance that would seem difficult and even imposing to strike. But as he rounds out his Bears career, saying goodbye to early morning practices that he regards as more fun than obligation, Sharf retains perspective.
"You'd think it would be intimidating, but once you get in there, it's not," says Sharf. "It's just water polo."