Back In Camp: Men's Water Polo
If inexperience was holding back the Cal men's water polo team at all last season, it doesn't figure to carry over to 2021.
The Bears were as good as any team in the country last season, spending four weeks ranked No. 1 and registering pivotal victories over fellow national powers UCLA, USC and Stanford. But Cal came up short in the NCAA Championships, succumbing to USC in the semifinals.
With virtually their entire roster back from last season, there isn't much difference in personnel – but there is in experience.
"When you look back at last year's season, you really see a season where our lack of experience due to our age showed at the end," said fifth-year senior and team captain Nikos Delagrammatikas, an ACWPC Second Team All-American last season. "The (NCAA) championship games are different, and I think that showed. Talent-wise, I think we were there. Now, we need to realize we are growing up. Being young and rebuilding is not an excuse anymore. Now we have legitimate preparation behind us and a good, seasoned roster."
Cal opened training camp for the 2021 season Wednesday at Legends Aquatic Center, happy to be entering a season with signs of normalcy and excited about the team's ultimate prospects. Reigning MPSF Player of the Year and ACWPC First Team All-American Nikolaos Papanikolaou returns for his junior season, and all the headaches he causes for opposing coaches along with it. Senior Jack Deely joins Delagrammatikas as a returning Second Team All-American while the Bears feature six returners that earned All-MPSF recognition last season.
"We have a talented group," said Cal head coach Kirk Everist, who was named the MPSF Coach of the Year after last season. "We had some good wins last year and were definitely competitive. There are a lot of things that we need to shore up, but I think it's a group that can be there at the end and make a run at it."
The Bears open the season Sept. 4-5 at the Navy Open, but won't be complete until a couple of weeks into the season. Cal is expected to be missing as many as six student-athletes who will be competing at the 2021 FINA World Junior Championships, which are scheduled to take place Aug. 28-Sept. 5 in Prague, Czech Republic.
"We will have some challenges early because of junior worlds," Everist said. "I want our players to strive to represent their country. It's important. The calendars sometimes don't work but it's hard for me to intellectualize not letting them have that opportunity. They will be playing at a really high level and will come back ready to go. It gives the next one or two guys an opportunity to develop, and that will help us in the long run."
Everist hopes to showcase Papanikolaou even more this season by moving him out of the center position at times to take advantage of his versatility. Papanikolaou ranked in the top-10 in the MPSF in points, goals, field blocks and steals last season.
"We know what we are capable of, and we're set on owning those expectations this time," Delagrammatikas said.