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Cal Water Polo: Bears Win 15th NCAA Crown with 13-12 Triumph over USC

Nikos Delgrammatikas scores the game-winning goal with 28 seconds left.

Nikolaos Papanikolaou virtually predicted a national championship for the Cal men’s water polo when we talked last month, and on Sunday he and his Golden Bears teammates made it a reality.

Nikos Delgrammatikas, team captain and fellow native of Athens, Greece, scored the game-winning goal with 28 seconds left and Papanikolaou knocked down USC’s final shot with two seconds left, preserving a 13-12 triumph for the Bears in the NCAA championship match in Los Angeles.

It’s the 15th national championship for the Bears’ water polo program -- the first since 2016 -- and the 98th across the spectrum of sports for Cal athletics. The Bears hadn't won any national team crown since the men's swim team prevailed in 2019.

In my interview with Papanikolaou — the MPSF Player of the Year — he talked about wanting to get a championship with his close friend Delgrammatikas, who is in his final season with the Bears as a grad student.

“We’re very close and I really want to win a national championship with him,” Papanikolaou says at about the 4-minute mark of the video above.

“A national championship, it’s been like five years since Cal last won it. So I think it’s about time.”

Delgrammatikas, in a phone interview Sunday afternoon, said, “I’m out of this world, man. I can’t even believe this.”

Reminded that Papanikolaou wanted to win the title for him, Delgrammatikas said, “I freaking love that guy. Winning means he world to me. It kind of reinforces my belief that it’s worth caring about things.

“Winning a championship is way more difficult than just having a good team.”

Kirk Everist won his fourth national championship in his 20th season as Bears' coach. "It's the end of a long journey and some great memories for these kids," Everist said. "I'm really proud of how they battled against the teams that we beat and how hard we played. You have to be prepared and make plays, and both teams did."

The Bears (22-4) were top-ranked in the country and seeded No. 1 for the MPSF tournament two weeks ago, then lost twice. They fell 12-11 in overtime to rival Stanford, then 11-9 to USC.

The Trojans (18-3) beat UC Davis in the national semifinals before suffering their second loss of the season to Cal.

Asked what it means the Bears were able to overcome those MPSF losses claim the national title, Delgrammatikas said, “It says that we have a great ability to understand where we are and where we want to go and what we need to do in between.”

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He believes it was a good thing the Bears lost at the MPSF tournament because it forced them to refocus. Delgrammatikas had his teammates give a “championship oath,” and said at practice the next week “everybody showed up to win a championship and nothing else.”

The Bears beat UCLA 15-13 in overtime in Saturday’s semifinal, a game Delgrammatikas mostly watched from the pool deck. He was disqualified early in the game and had to stress out the rest of the match.

“I was out for most of the game and they carried us through. Every guy did their little part,” he said. “In the final, I never had a doubt in my mind.”

The championship game featured 10 tie scores before delivered the game-winner.

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t realize I scored the winning goal because I was so focused on stopping them from scoring,” Delgrammatikas said. “I think I’m going to look back at it and be very happy.

“In sports, every athlete that has ambitions, dreams about scoring about scoring the winning goal. But let’s not forget the other 12 goals were scored by other people. Without everybody else, it’s just a goal.”

Teammate Max Casabella had four goals and two assists and Roberto Valera scored three goals.

Papanikolaou was named the most valuable player of the NCAA Championship while Jack Deely, Casabella and goalkeeper Adrian Weinberg were named to the NCAA Championship All-Tournament Team. Casabella scored 10 goals in two NCAA games.

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CAL NATIONAL TEAM CHAMPIONSHIPS (98)

  • Rugby (33)
  • 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1988, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2013^, 2014^, 2015^, 2016, 2016^, 2017, 2017^
  • Men's Rowing+ (17 - Based on Varsity Eight finish)
  • 1928, 1932, 1934, 1935, 1939, 1949, 1960, 1961, 1964, 1976, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2016
  • Men's Water Polo* (15)
  • 1973, 1974, 1975, 1977, 1983, 1984, 1987, 1988, 1990, 1991, 1992, 2006, 2007, 2016, 2021
  • Football# (5)
  • 1920: Billingsley, Football Research, Helms, Houlgate, National Championship Foundation
  • 1921: Boand, Football Research
  • 1922: Houlgate, National Championship Foundation
  • 1923: Houlgate
  • 1937: Dunkel, Helms
  • Men's Gymnastics* (4)
  • 1968, 1975, 1997, 1998
  • Men's Tennis (2)
  • 1980**, 1989**
  • Women's Rowing%* (5 - Based on combined team finish)
  • 1980%, 2005*, 2006*, 2016*, 2018*
  • Baseball* (2)
  • 1947, 1957
  • Men's Swimming & Diving* (6)
  • 1979, 1980, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2019
  • Men's Track & Field* (1)
  • 1922
  • Men's Basketball* (1)
  • 1959
  • Men's Golf* (1)
  • 2004
  • Softball* (1)
  • 2002
  • Women's Swimming & Diving* (4)
  • 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015
  • Women's Tennis (1)
  • 2016**
  • *NCAA
  • ^Rugby 7s
    **Intercollegiate Tennis Association National Indoor Championship
    %National Women's Rowing Association
    +Intercollegiate Rowing Association
    !Collegiate Rugby Championship
    #Various Polls

Cover photo of Cal's national championship team by Catharyn Hayne, KLC fotos

Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo