The trek to the top of any mountain is treacherous. But in some ways, it’s harder to stay atop that lone peak of greatness, to stand tall with hungry teams scratching at your feet, wanting only to topple the throne. After winning the 2021 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championship, the Bears face an even taller task: defending their title.
However, when all is said and done, Cal is not without its reinforcements. The Bears are bolstered with the return of five All-Americans. Among this star-studded cast is center Nikolaos Papanikolaou, the 2021 recipient of the Cutino Award, the highest honor in collegiate water polo (equivalent to an MVP award). Returning alongside Papanikolaou is fellow First Team All-American attacker Jack Deely. This dynamic duo racked up a combined 107 goals last season.
“We have a lot of returning players from last year,” head coach Kirk Everist said. “It’s a little bit different from last year when we were incorporating a number of newer players.”
Everist in his own right brings a bounty of experience to the Bears’ title defense. He earned his third coach of the year award last season, adding another honor to one of the most decorated water polo resumes ever. Everist holds three All-American selections, a 1988 player of the year award, two trips to the Olympics and four NCAA titles as the head coach of Cal’s water polo team. There is no better person than Everist to continue to lead Cal men’s water polo as it attempts to tighten its grasp on the crown.
When asked about the prospects of defending their title, Everist spoke highly of the team’s focus entering the Navy Open.
“They’ve been focused on getting back to a championship level. … In our sport, (there are) lots of one goal games, lots of tightly contested matches and we want to put ourselves in a situation to compete in those games.”
In their 2021 championship run, the Bears — in true namesake fashion — had to scratch and claw their way past UCLA and USC, advancing against the Bruins in overtime by two goals and claiming the crown versus the Trojans by a single goal. The margins of error are razor thin in water polo; one goal is the difference between glory and devastation, and fortunately for the Bears, they earned the former.
The target on Cal’s back doesn’t lighten this season’s load — far from it, actually. Everist has warned his locker room that teams this season will play harder against it because of the championship on its belt.
To get back to the pinnacle of collegiate water polo, it starts in the locker room.
Everist cited establishing a consistency on defense and fine tuning the offense as points of emphasis heading into the Navy Open.
“The biggest thing for us is to play as a group and to stay together no matter what’s going on because there will be adversity this season. … We need to be in control of the flow of the game in order for us to be successful.”
Cal men’s water polo plays Johns Hopkins, Iona, Princeton and Navy this weekend in Annapolis, Maryland. While the Blue Jays, the Gaels and the Naval Academy aren’t quite top tier talent, the Tigers are certainly nothing to sleep on. Princeton found its way to the big tourney last season, falling to UCLA in the quarterfinals but finishing an impressive 26-8 on the season.
Regardless of talent or prior success, each opponent at the Navy Open poses an opportunity for the Bears to start the season strong. They have the talent, the coaching and the experience to return to Berkeley 4-0, undefeated. 2021 is in the past; the Bears now set their sights on the 2022 championship.
“We have a hard road ahead of us and we have to start off quickly.”