Dec. 4, 2010

BERKELEY, CALIF. - By Jake Curtis

Special to

Host California rallied from a two-goal second half deficit on Saturday to upend Loyola Marymount 7-6 and set up a national championship men's water polo match between the nation's top-ranked teams.

No. 2 Cal meets two-time defending champ and top-ranked USC in Sunday's title game, a contest featuring the winners of the past five national crowns.

USC won the past two NCAA championships as well as in 2005. Cal won it all in 2006 and 2007 and owns 13 NCAA titles overall, more than any other program.

Cal team members are just happy to be in the title game. Despite playing in their home pool, the favored Golden Bears (24-3) found themselves in danger of being knocked out by Marymount, a team it beat 11-2 a month earlier.

The Lions (19-9) led 6-4 after their top scorer, Ikaika Aki, scored with just 1:21 left in the third quarter. With Marymount goalie Andy Stevens playing an outstanding game, the Lions were in position to pull off a major upset.

"Of course I was concerned," said Cal standout Ivan Rackov, who scored two goals but also had a penalty shot stopped by Stevens in the first half. "Everything goes through your head."

Stevens thought he detected concern from the Cal players.

"They looked nervous; you could see it in their eyes," Stevens said.

Stevens is animated and talkative during a game, and he let Cal know about it each time he made one of his 12 saves.

"When he's on, he can trash talk and get away with it," Marymount coach John Loughran said.

But the Cal defense did not allow the Lions another goal the rest of the game. And when Cal freshman Max Bergeson scored a goal with six seconds left in the third, the Bears' deficit was just one goal heading into the final quarter.

Cory Nasoff scored the tying goal with 3:50 remaining in the game and Zach White, who had not played for much of the fourth quarter, scored from close range on a shot that eluded Stevens with 2:41 to go.

"It was a real trash goal," Stevens said. "They got lucky."

White disagreed.

"A goal's a goal," he said. "If it's a trash goal, he should have blocked it. But he's a really good goalie."

Loyola Marymount had a chance to tie the game when Aki got free from within two meters, but Cal goalie Justin Parsons made the stop from point-blank range.

"I think we got a little tired," Loughran said. "We don't have as much depth, and I didn't substitute as much. Ikaika made a great move, but I think he was tired. And playing at Cal was an advantage for them. I think if played at a neutral site it might be a different game."

The Lions had put pressure on Cal from the start, jumping out to a 3-1 lead, weathering a four-goal burst by Cal and then scoring the first three goals of the second half to take that 6-4 lead. Cal was able to make the plays when they were needed most, however.

"I was a little upset because I don't think we performed the way we should," Rackov said. "But that's past. I'm just thinking about the next game."

Cal coach Kirk Everist also is thinking about the next game after getting past a semifinal game in which all the pressure was on the heavily favored Bears.

"Now it's fun," he said.