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Photo by X / Cal Men's Water Polo

Bears Three-Peat For Third Time

December 3, 2023
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LOS ANGELES – They didn't want to talk about it all season long. So, no one really brought it up.

But, with so much proven talent returning and the established championship pedigree on their team, every Golden Bear knew there was only one real mission in 2023 – to become just the fourth men's water polo program ever to win three straight national titles.

On Sunday, the Bears (24-5) accomplished that mission, defeating top-seeded UCLA 13-11 at Uytengsu Aquatics Center behind a third straight NCAA Championship MVP performance from Nikolaos Papanikolaou.

"Incredibly proud of these guys. Everything that they battled through this year," Cal head coach Kirk Everist. "It's only been done a few times. To be able to figure out how to win three in a row is something that's very rare, but this is an extremely rare group. I'm proud to be a part of it."

For much of the game, the only way the Bruins (26-3) could stop the two-time Cutino Award winner from scoring was by fouling him. In the four possessions following Papanikolaou's seventh drawn exclusion early in the third quarter, the Bears got the separation they needed, scoring three unanswered goals to put them up 12-6.

UCLA clawed its way back and would have cut Cal's lead to just two goals on a promising counter attack at the end of the third period if not for a heroic save by goalkeeper Adrian Weinberg. The three-time ACWPC All-American finished with 11 saves, including four in the fourth quarter.

The Bruins did eventually cut the deficit to 12-10 with 5:36 left in the game, but Max Casabella answered with a dagger from straightaway on the following play, lasering in his fifth goal straight down off the crossbar. Casabella and Weinberg both joined Papanikolaou on the NCAA All-Tournament First Team, while Jake Howerton earned second-team honors.

"There was a lot of adversity this season, but the best part about this group is we're always going to stick together no matter how bad it gets," Weinberg said. "I was pretty confident (since the start of the season) that we'd make it here."

With time on their side, the Bears leaned on their defense and let the clock run out, cementing their place alongside Cal's 1973-75 and 1990-92 squads as the only Golden Bear teams to win three straight national titles.

"It's pretty nice. You don't accomplish something like this without incredible players," said Everist, who won his sixth NCAA championship as a coach and eight overall. "It takes a lot more than just great players to do this time and time again though. I'm just grateful to have been around these guys."

After missing the first two games of the tournament, Roberto Valera returned in a big way, contributing to more goals than any other player with four goals and two assists. Albert Ponferrada finished with game highs of four assists and three steals.

A send-off following a third straight championship game victory was always going to be the best possible scenario for Cal's nine-man senior class of 2023 – eight of whom are in their fifth year as Bears. Everist reiterated how proud he was for all that they've battled through and accomplished for the program, while Papanikolaou and Weinberg lightheartedly joked about where this championship ranks among the three.

"I think both of us can agree that this one was very special because it was a culmination of everything we worked for," Weinberg said. "It's very special and it hasn't really registered yet, but it probably will in about a week."

Weinberg ends the year with 984 career saves, placing him at No. 3 all-time in MPSF history. Still fresh off winning a gold medal for Team USA at the Pan American Games in November, Weinberg is hopeful to continue competing at the highest level for Team USA as it prepares for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Papanikolaou reached a tally of 253 goals which ranks No. 2 all-time at Cal. But according to Everist, when it comes to overall Cal legends, that's not where he places Papanikolaou in the rankings.

"I played with a guy who lives in Greece now. His name's Chris Humbert. He, rightfully so, thinks that he's the best player who ever played at Cal," Everist said. "I keep telling him he's the second-best player, but he would say, 'I have 3 championships and [Papanikolaou] only has two.' So, now I can text him and say, 'Alright, take a step down.'"

No. 2 California 13, No. 3 UCLA 11
Cal 4 5 3 1 – 13
UCLA 2 4 3 2 – 11
Cal Goals: Max Casabella 5, Roberto Valera 4, Nikolaos Papanikolaou 2, Garrett Dunn, Nik Mirkovic
UCLA Goals: Rafael Real Vergara 3, Frederico Jucá Carsalade 2, Ben Liechty 2, Makoto Kenney 2, Marcell Szécsi, Giorgio Alessandria
Cal Saves: Adrian Weinberg 11
UCLA Saves: Garret Griggs 9

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Bears Three-Peat For Third Time

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