Cal water polo starts 2010 at No. 1, hopes to finish season at home

By Byron Atashian

Daily Californian, U. California-Berkeley via UWIRE

The Cal men’s water polo team is the most decorated in the nation, with 13 titles under its belt. This season, the squad hosts the NCAA Championship at Spieker Aquatics Complex for the first time ever.

“To have the tournament here (at Spieker) is kind of a natural considering the history and tradition of water polo at this school,” Bears head coach Kirk Everist said. “To have the opportunity with a team that has that kind of ability is an opportunity that we can hopefully take advantage of.”

At the start of this year, Cal is the favorite to capture that title at home – having secured the top ranking in the Preseason Collegiate Top 20 Water Polo Poll. 2010 will be a chance for the Bears to jump back into the postseason falling short last year. Cal advanced to the finals of the MPSF Tournament as the third seed before falling to No. 4 UCLA, 10-7.

“The team got pretty close so that’s in their memory,” Everist said. “We got a decent amount of experience from last year and I think we’re all optimistic that this team has a chance at playing for a national championship.”

While Cal two lost key seniors to graduation last year – four time All-American Spencer ex-team captain Mike Sample – the team has a lot of experience coming back.

Key players returning from last year’s team include seniors Brian Dudley and Zach White, and juniors Ivan Rackov, and Cory Nasoff. All four are All-Americans. Also returning are junior attackers Charlie Steffens and Luka Saponjic, as well as junior goalie Wil Toppen.

Dudley and Steffens share the responsibility of captain this year. In 23 matches last year, Dudley scored 18 goals, while also recording 40 steals, and 24 assists. Steffens scored 24 goals, had 28 steals, and had 44 assists to go with seven field blocks.

The Bears also have some incoming young talent that could spell the team’s key veterans. As many as five freshmen could crack the rotation: Giacomo Cupido of Italy, Perry Short of Australia, and a trio of first-team high school All-Americans.

“I think it’s a good mix of young and old,” Everist said. “The younger players are bringing a lot of energy and a sense of urgency to the group and we’ve got good senior leadership with Brian Dudley and Charlie Steffens.”

If Cal wants to stay on top in such a loaded MPSF conference, lead they must. USC has won the championship the last two years, while Stanford and UCLA are major competitors, as well. The Bruins and Cardinal trail the Bears with 10 and eight titles, respectively.

With just four slots in the NCAA postseason bracket – half of them traditionally occupied by MPSF teams – performing at a high level in the powerhouse conference will be important for Cal.

“Our conference is pretty brutal,” Everist said. “Every team can beat you on a given day if you’re not prepared.”

Everist, entering his ninth year coaching for the Bears, will be the one to keep the team focused. Having led Cal to four titles – two as coach and two as a player – his experience is crucial for success.

“There’s a lot of work to be done in between (now and the NCAAs) but it’s a talented group and a team that’s worked really hard, so expectations are high,” he said.

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