Courtesy: Cal Athletics
After breezing through its first five games by an average margin of 11.2 goals, the No. 1 California men’s water polo team travels for a pair of road tests this weekend against undefeated, top-8 teams in No. 2 USC and No. 8 Pepperdine. Saturday will provide the first of two scheduled meetings between the Golden Bears and Trojans, who last saw each other in the Bears’ 13-12 comeback win in last year’s NCAA title game. Roberto Valera – who in that game scored the championship-clinching goal – is coming off a stellar opening weekend at the Triton Invitational that saw him register 25 goal contributions, resulting in him receiving the first MPSF Player of the Week award of the season and of his career. Cal swept last year’s season series with USC 3-0 and defeated the Waves 17-12 in their only meeting.
No men’s water polo program has won more national championships than Cal, which claimed its 16th in 2022 in legendary fashion by coming back from four goals down over the final six minutes to defeat USC 13-12 in front of its home crowd at Spieker Aquatics Complex. It was the second straight year that the Bears clinched the title against USC by the same final score. Out of Cal’s 16 championships, only two of them (1977, 2016) were not part of a back-to-back run. Only three times in NCAA men’s water polo history has a team completed a three-peat, with the Bears doing so twice from 1973-75 and 1990-92.
VALERA’S HOT START
Roberto Valera had a sizzling first week of his junior season, recording five straight multi-goal efforts and leading the Bears with 13 goals, three hat tricks and 15 assists. On Monday, the two-time All-American earned his first career MPSF Player of the Week award thanks in large part to his back-to-back three-goal, six-assist outings in wins of 20-5 over No. 11 UC San Diego and 16-10 against No. 7 UC Santa Barbara.
Center Nikolaos Papanikolaou’s teammates call him the “best player in collegiate water polo,” and with good reason. The Athens, Greece, native was already putting together one of the best careers the NCAA has ever seen by the start of the 2022 season, which ended with him scoring seven goals in the Bears’ 13-12 national championship comeback win over USC en route to his second straight ACWPC Player of the Year award. Papanikolaou later became the program’s first two-time winner of the Cutino Award, the prestigious annual honor given to the top player in NCAA water polo. The four-time All-American has scored 12 goals through five games this season, giving him 222 for his career and moving him to No. 4 all time at Cal.
Goalie Adrian Weinberg’s confidence is at an all-time high following another All-American season – his third overall selection and second time on the first team. Against Navy on Monday, he tied an early season high with nine saves, doing so in less than three quarters in the cage. Weinberg’s clutch save and assist to Roberto Valera in the final minute of the national title game sealed the Bears’ second straight championship, and he followed that up by competing and starting in three separate tournaments for Team USA over a five-month span. That included an outstanding showing in the Men’s Water Polo World Cup in June, when he averaged nine saves per game and helped Team USA secure the bronze medal in a penalty shootout win over Hungary. Weinberg went on to become the team’s top choice at goalkeeper at the World Aquatics Championships the following month.
STRONG RETURNING CAST
The 2023 Bears are made up of a highly experienced group of returners that includes eight fifth-year seniors and almost the entirety of their championship-winning starting lineup. Junior attacker Max Casabella joins Papanikolaou and Weinberg among Cal’s first-team All-American returners. Casabella (11 goals) is currently tied with Albert Ponferrada for third on the team in scoring, behind only Valera (13 goals) and Papanikolaou (12). Ponferrada has shined so far in his sophomore season in an increased role, setting a career high with four goals in Cal’s win over UCSB on Sunday. In all, Cal brings back seven of the eight players who scored at least 20 goals last season.
ALL HE DOES IS WIN
Kirk Everist began his 22nd season as Cal’s head coach fresh off his second straight national coach of the year honor – his fourth overall – and his record-breaking third consecutive MPSF Coach of the Year award. The USA Water Polo Hall of Famer owns an all-time coaching record of 441-129 (.774) and has won seven national championships at Cal, five coming as a coach and two as a player.
BEARS EARN NO. 1 PRESEASON RANKING
For the second straight year, the Bears began the season as the nation’s top-ranked team, as Cal topped both the Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) preseason poll and the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) coaches poll. This marked the fifth time since 2008 that the Bears started the year with a No. 1 national ranking.
BEARS WITH BRAINS
Excelling both inside and outside of the pool, the Bears hauled in numerous academic awards from the 2022-23 school year, including 15 ACWPC All-Academic nods – tied for the program’s most since 2009. They also brought in nine MPSF All-Academic and Pac-12 Honor Roll honors, while individually, Jordi Gascon earned a spot on the College Sports Communicators (CSC) At-Large Academic All-District Team.
ABOUT NO. 2 USC
• Three of last four defeats since 2022 were vs. Cal
• Defeated No. 17 California Baptist 17-12 and No. 11 UCSD 11-9 last weekend
• MPSF Newcomer of the Year Massimo Di Martire led team with 63 goals last year
• Made NCAA final 17 of last 18 seasons
• CAL ALL-TIME VS. USC: 68-69-2 (W4)
ABOUT NO. 8 PEPPERDINE
• Defeated two top-20 teams at Harvard-hosted Bruno Classic to start 4-0
• First year competing in the West Coast Conference
• Has two former All-Americans in Adam Csapo and Antonio Knez
• CAL ALL-TIME VS. PEPPERDINE: 62-16-1 (W1)