LOS ANGELES, CA. If Coralie Simmons and her California Golden Bear women’s water polo team are any example, perhaps you can go home again. #5 Cal gave the top-ranked and #1 seeded UCLA Bruins everything they could handle before falling 9-8 in a semifinal match in the Mountain Pacific Sports Foundation (MPSF) Women’s Water Polo Tournament on Saturday at UCLA’s Spieker Pool.
With the win the host Bruins (21-1)—who had a first round bye thanks to a 6-0 record in conference play—advance to the MPSF title game on Sunday afternoon against #2 Stanford (20-2, 5-1 MPSF), a 6-5 winner over #3 USC in action earlier in the day.
The underdog Bears (15-8, 2-4 MPSF), who scraped out a 9-7 win on Friday over #4 Arizona State in the MPSF quarterfinals, pushed the well-rested Bruins to the limit, leading 8-7 three minutes into the fourth quarter before freshman sensation Maddie Musselman rattled home the equalizer from five-meters and freshman Bronte Halligan skipped the winning tally past Cal goalie Madeline Trabucco with three minutes remaining to put UCLA ahead for good.
Bruins coach Brandon Brooks admitted that a ferocious Cal comeback in the second half, when the Bears scored four straight times to erase a three goal deficit, forced his team to dig deep for the win.
“It caught me by surprise a little bit because we’ve been quite good about finishing of late,” Brooks said after the match. “You’ve got to respect how hard Cal worked and in the future go out and respect ho hard SC and Stanford play as well.”
Cal Coach Simmons, who starred on national championship teams for UCLA in 1997, 1998 and 2001 and was an assistant to then-head coach Adam Kirkorian on the 2007 NCAA champions, pushed her underdog squad to the limit while putting a scare in the big, bad Bruins.
“The girls enjoy playing the Bruins and I obviously do as well,” Simmons said. “We had a good game plan coming in and stuck to it pretty well in an environment for us to do some special things.”
UCLA was led by Musselman’s hat trick, giving her 58 goals in her inaugural season for the Bruins. Perhaps no single goal was more important than a rocket that slipped in just under the crossbar with 5 minutes left in the match that ended Cal’s run and set the stage for Halligan’s game winner.
After the match Musselman explained that defense created her opportunity to score.
“When we came to the wall after going down a goal, it was nails on defense,” she said. “Making a stop, getting up on the counter, led to that goal.”
She admitted—reluctantly—that when the Bruins needed it most, she was comfortable taking a shot with the match on the line.
I saw an opening and I took it,” Musselman said. “When there’s an opportunity to score—especially having a role of being a scorer—you have to step up in those moments.”
UCLA senior Alys Williams opened the match with a quick strike at 7:41 on the power play, following an exclusion to Cal’s Emily Loughlin. A five-meter penalty shot by the Bruin’s Kodi Hill at 5:46 suggested that the match might quickly turn into a rout, but Cal goals less than a minute apart—a penalty shot by junior Dora Antal and a power play goal by Loughlin—tied the match until Musselman untied it with a blast from four meters.
With a minute and a half to go Cal got another power play goal, this time by sophomore Rachel Lewin, to tie the game at 3-all.
The second period saw the home team break out to a three-goal lead on the strength of scores by seniors Rachel Fattal (7:30 mark), Mackenzie Barr (6:11) and Fattal again (2:34, on a power play) before the visitors rallied for four straight goals over the next seven minutes.
Junior Carla Carrega scored from the strong-side at 1:45, then Cal drew a another five-meter penalty with less than a minute left. Junior Anna Illes converted the penalty shot to cut the UCLA advantage to 6-5 after two periods.
The halftime break didn’t slow down the Bears’ surge. Senior Stephanie Mutafyan put a long shot past Bruin goalie Donya Dehnad to knot the score at six, then Carrega gave Cal its first lead of the match on a lob with three minutes left in the third that just eluded Dehnad’s reach.
Mussleman converted on a penalty shot with just over a minute left in the third to even the match at seven, but Cal freshman Emma Wright put her team ahead for a final time with a minute left in the period, leading to goals by Musselman and Halligan. The UCLA defense held off Cal, denying the Bears’ an upset bid.
After escaping a trap game in his home pool, UCLA’s Brooks was in no mood to offer a prediction about Sunday’s final against Stanford and its Olympic stars Maggie Steffens and Mackenzie Fisher. But he acknowledged that a loud and clear message was delivered about what his team needs to do if it wants to capture its first MPSF final since 2015.
“A lot of time when you’re learning a lesson you don’t enjoy it,” he said. “I’m looking for the ability for us to not let the moment get too big.”