Cutino, who would go on to lead the Bears to eight national crowns, wrote a thorough recap of his first NCAA championship team. Cal captured the 1973 title by defeating New Mexico, 8-1; UCLA, 4-2; and UC Irvine, 8-4, in the finals.
In the first game the Golden Bears looked pretty shaky, but still superior an outmanned New Mexico contingent. “Take it easy, play looser this next game.” Cutino told the Bears afterwards. “You are trying too hard to make the perfect pass or shot. And remember it is us against them. We must play together.”
The defense was together against UCLA, forcing three turnovers on the 45 second clock in the first quarter alone with an impressive man-to-man press.
Jon Svendsen gave the Bears a 1-0 lead over a minute into the game on a pass from Tom Belfanti, and Doug Healy stole the ball early in the second period and went all the way to score and put the Bears up 2-0.
Bruin Garth Bergeson then sandwiched a pair of goals around a 6-on-5 score by Walt Bricker from Doug Arth before another score by Bricker with 3:54 left in the game put Cal again up by two. The defense led by Svendsen and Arth with four steals each thwarted most UCLA threats.
“I can’t pick out any one standout,” assessed Cutino after the game. “This is one of the strengths of our team; everyone contributes, and this is the kind of water polo we want to play. In terms of the game situations, though, Doug Arth got several really big steals late in the game. Also Bricker gave us a big spark coming off the bench. He’s been our most effective player coming off the bench.”
The win in Friday evening’s second round set up the third meeting of the year between California and UC Irvine. The previous two had each been for championships also. In the Irvine Invitational and the Northern California Invitational, the Bears prevailing 6-5 and 9-6.
Cutino elected to start the same six who opened the first two games – Peter Schnugg (whose nephew, Andrew Schnugg, is a member of the 2013 Cal squad), Svendsen, Arth, Belfanti, Healy, and Joe Bogen, along with Dean Crane in the cage – but things did not go nearly as smoothly in the finals Saturday night.
Healy was fouled inside the four-meter zone and Arth rammed in a penalty shot to give Cal a 1-0 lead, but Irvine ace Jim Kruse tied it up four minutes into the game. Pretty passing from Healy to Arth to Bricker got the Bears another goal, but Kruse managed to tie it again when Crane, after making a scrambling save, tossed the ball away to Irvine’s Bret Bernard.
Then came a second quarter that very nearly proved fatal to Cal’s chances. Belfanti picked up a deflected pass while the Bears were in a 6-on-5 situation. Miles Evans then added the lead on a pass from Arth in another Cal 6-on-5.
But, the Bears , usually very poised on defense, seemed to lose control and committed a rash of fouls that set up another UCI 6-on-5 which saw Bernard convert and cut the lead to 4-3. Even worse, Svendsen, Arth and Belfanti each had four fouls at the end of the first half.
They were all on the bench as Cal opened the third period with Schnugg, Healy, Bricker, Evans, Phil Cozens (whose son, Phil Cozens, Jr., is on the 2013 Cal squad), and Bogen, and UCI came out roaring. The Anteaters dominated the play early in the period, but Crane blocked a point-blank shot by Kruse, and a penalty shot by Kruse.
The Bears survived another 6-on-5 by UCI before an Evans to Jeff White to Evans passing exchange resulted in a very big goal. In the course of the quarter, Cozens, Healy, and Bogen fouled out, but Irvine went scoreless as replacements Randy Williams, Scott Nesbit (whose son, Graham, is on the 2013 Cal squad), Ed King and Jim Parker came in.
Svendsen, Arth and Belfanti came back in the fourth period, and Svendsen popped one in at 6:23 left, Bricker took a pass from Evans at 5:34, and a steal by Arth set up an ejection foul on UCI. Bricker tipped in a pass from Arth in the resulting 6-on-5 and the Bears coasted.
‘The bench did it, the subs did it,” yelled a jubilant Schnugg as he shook hands all around on the Cal side after the game. “Everybody was just great.”
Cutino agreed: “Our depth really paid off, and the bench saved us. Holding UCI scoreless is a great job, and I can’t say enough about the performance of Crane in the goal (eight saves).
It was a fitting reward and finale for co-captains Schnugg and White, who along with King and John Carlson are the only seniors on the squad. It also makes the two seasons of redshirting half the team in 1971 and 1972 while Cal was on probation worth the wait. In two attempts now at the NCAAs, Cal has a first and a second (1969).
“It’s been a long time coming,” reflected a wet and happy Cutino. “It’s about time something good has happened for Cal Athletics.”
“Postseason plans?” he concluded. “Well swimming season starts Monday,”
The annual Cal men’s water polo alumni match is free and opened to the public. The Bears started the 2013 season 4-0 at last weekend’s Triton Invitational in San Diego. No. 4-ranked Cal, led by senior team captain and first-team All-American Collin Smith, outscored its opponents, 66-24, in San Diego, defeating Redlands, 21-3; UC San Diego, 13-10; Loyola Marymount, 17-7 and UC Davis, 15-4.
Some potential members of the Alumni team that will play Saturday include Michael Sharf, the 2007 NCAA Tournament MVP, and Marin Balarin, last year’s team captain and third-team All-American.