Cal head coach Everist on rebuilding consistency for MPSF tournament
The Golden Bears have won thirteen NCAA Water Polo Championships, the most of any NCAA program. Year in and year out, California expects to have a squad that competes for a national championship. This year is no exception as the Golden Bears are quietly on a roll heading into the MPSF tournament. Cal knows it needs to win MPSFs in order to qualify for the national championships and they will leave it all out in the pool this weekend. Below Head Coach Kirk Everist discusses rebuilding his program mid-season and preparing for the conference tournament.
You lost some guys early in the year, leading to a stretch where you dropped five out of six, which is not typical of Cal. Since then, how have you rallied to the point that you are the third seed at MPSFs?
Everist: Yes we did lose some guys right before NorCals and we had to rebuild the group and guys had to change positions. We also had players that had to come out of redshirting. We needed to reestablish what we wanted to do as a team.
Going into those tournaments and having to play UCLA and Stanford plus having USC in between NorCals and SoCals is tough enough. But our situation made it a bit tougher. We had second-half leads on UCLA at NorCals as well as in our MPSF game. However, we had long stretches of inconsistency. We were up on USC a couple of goals in the fourth quarter, but ended up losing. We had to establish consistency and roles. We also lost our current starting goalie Jon Sibley to a concussion and Michael Boggan had to step up and play for the NorCal and SoCal tournaments. Mainly, we needed to figure out our identity as a group. The team has come around and we are excited to be the third seed at MPSFs. We know we have to win the tournament.
The challenge is to get by Pepperdine first. They are a senior-led team and that experience is big in the tournament. The UOP-UCLA winner will be tough. UCLA is a great team and when Balazs Erdelyi is going for UOP they are very tough to beat.
Marin Balarin has been very good at two-meter for your team. Can you tell us a little about him?
Everist: Really a great story. Marin is a local kid from Berkeley High. Comes from a water polo family. His father played in Croatia. Marin played at our club team Lamorinda and came in as a right-handed driver. There was some tough competition there with guys like Ivan Rackov, Cory Nasoff and Charlie Steffens so we then tried him out at two-meter defender. That did not work out, so between sophomore and junior year we sat down as we were running out of positions for him to play. Marin has a tremendous amount of heart and was willing to try two-meter. He worked hard and won a starting job last year. Marin was voted captain this season. He is constantly working on both sides of the ball. Marin is now someone other teams game-plan for. He had two big goals against UOP.
Aleksa Saponjic won a bronze medal for Serbia at the London Olympics and has been great this season. What makes him special?
Everist: Obviously being on an Olympic team at that age is a great accomplishment. He is a really, really, really good role player. Aleksa does everything well and can make an impact whether he scores or not. He is not the flashiest player out there, but is constantly working on both sides of the ball. Aleksa is willing to do the little things, the dirty work to help the team be successful.
Collin Smith is currently your leading scorer. What makes him such a threat?
Everist: Collin is very athletic. He is the fastest player we have and likely the fastest player end to end in the country. If he decided to swim, he could go a 1:38 200 free, maybe faster. Collin is a great shooter and has added a perimeter game to his driving and counter game. He has great legs and is a tremendous defender. We had five one-goal wins last year and Collin had the game-winner in at least four of them. That helped him build his confidence going into this year.
What does Cal need to do to win MPSFs?
Everist: We have to be consistent and play a four-quarter game. We cannot have those stretches of inconsistency. We have been playing thirteen players with nine being freshmen and sophomores. Those guys have grown a lot over the year and are sophomores and juniors now in reality. We have seen that the last few weeks in winning at Pepperdine, UCI and Pacific as well as at home versus Santa Barbara. These wins have really helped us gain confidence moving into tournament play. A few weeks ago, getting the third seed at MPSFs was a stretch. The win against Stanford is something to point to. If we play like that we will win.