The heart of a champion isn’t defined by those who win, but by those who find a way to win, those who claw their way to victory by sheer determination.
The Bears faced their toughest challenge of the early season Friday in the No. 5 Pacific Tigers. It was a packed arena with Tigers fans littering the bleachers and the local youth water polo scene out in full force. The energy and hype in the crowd matched the occasion they were gathered for — a head-to-head matchup between the two top teams in the country.
The Bears felt that energy to open the game, in a bad way. Cal conceded four straight goals to a Tiger team that was hungry to take down the defending champs. Pacific goalkeeper Bae Fountain had a monster performance of 14 saves to fend off the Cal attack. The Tigers’ play took their physicality right to the teeth of the Bears, with Bogdan Djerkovic being an absolute thorn in their side.
“They came out ready to roll,” said head coach Kirk Everist. “They were hot early and we were a little slow on defense, we weren’t field blocking very well, we weren’t moving very well and they just jumped on us.”
It might’ve been over right there and then in the first quarter. With the Pacific fans roaring and the nervous murmur of the Cal fans, it seemed hopeless — the Tigers’ momentum could have completely overrun the Bears. However, National Player of the Year Nikolaos Papanikolaou kept the game within arms reach with two timely goals to settle the nerves of the arena.
From then on, it was a whirlwind of goals and fouls, with both teams trading possessions and power plays left and right.
“(They) put us with our backs against the wall but I am very happy with the effort of the team to gradually get back quarter by quarter, minute by minute, possession by possession to comeback and win the game in overtime,” Papanikolaou said.
It was that one step at a time mentality where the Bears showcased their champion’s heart and spirit.
With the physicality reaching a point where a splash fight might have broken out, it was a collective effort by the Bears to mount a furious comeback.
Sophomore Max Casabella led the charge with a team-high five goals. Joe Molina, a crowd favorite who induced a number of cheers from the local water polo scene, scored two timely goals to cut the deficit to zero in the fourth. Ultimately, it was Warren Loth who scored the two overtime goals to earn Cal the 16-15 win.
“As you can see, I’m very tired,” Papanikolaou laughed. “(The game) was extra physical because this is how (the Tigers) play. It was more of a European style — they scream a lot, they fight a lot. We worked all summer with our conditioning to play against teams like that to finally win in the end.”
The conditioning in question paid dividends over the weekend versus No. 13 UCSD and No. 9 Pepperdine. The team earned 11 steals versus the Tritons in a 19-15 victory Saturday. Sunday, the Bears dug in against the Waves and held them off in a 17-12 slugfest. Things could have gone poorly this weekend if the Bears opened the homestand with an overdog loss to the Tigers.
The wins weren’t clean but life isn’t perfect. With the image of perfection at the Navy Open in the rearview mirror, the Bears will have to find multiple avenues of winning to defend their championship title.
“It was a bit ugly, but at this level it’s good to win ugly occasionally,” Everist said.
The heart of a champion prevailed and the Bears advanced to 7-0 in the early season.