The Eighth Man

Countdown to Kissimmee: University of California-Berkeley

Credit: Rocio Salas

Credit: Rocio Salas

Berkeley’s program is one of the oldest in the Western Region, with Cal having participated in every major Western tournament since Western Cup II. Last season, the Bears were clearly the dominant team in the Bay Area, winning every major tournament they played in there, with almost every game played out of snitch range.  This season, however, has borne out a different story.  Although they won their first tournament of the year, cracks began to emerge, as they were upset by San Jose State, and they were outscored in quaffle points by their neighbors, the Skrewts.  Cal still has many of the players that took them near the top of the West, but the lack of much new notable talent has hampered them, as have departures of former elite players.  They failed to initially qualify in Western Cup, taking 8th place, and getting a World Cup invite only after the West was granted a 7th bid – which was subsequently passed on by the Santa Barbara Blacktips – due to international teams dropping out.

Best Wins: vs. Silicon Valley (90*-70, Sept. 22)

Worst Losses: vs. Santa Barbara Blacktips (80*-70, Feb. 17)

Key Players: In the past, Cal has relied heavily on dominant seeker Donovan McNiff, and his departure takes away the feeling that if the Bears are in snitch range, they will win the game, and quickly.  Instead, they find themselves much more heavily reliant on star chasers Sam Harris and Gavin Saldanha.  Harris has become Cal’s most reliable point defender, quick enough to not get blown past by quicker players but strong enough to bring down the strongest of drivers.  Saldanha, while not particularly effective as a point defender, is a very strong player off-ball, who uses his length and quickness to cut down all sort of passes.  Both players are great one-man forces on offense, Sam driving with power and Gavin with quickness.  New captain Taylor Pierola anchors their beater game, which, while not up to the level of the elite teams in the West, can at least hold their own against any of the non-elite teams in the West.

Player to Watch: While so much of their offense flows through Harris and Saldanha, one of their veterans, Sean Robbins, has stepped up and become their best off-ball option as a chaser this year.  Robbins is absolutely elite in one aspect: his speed.  He has one of the fastest run-ups in all of quidditch, and he works well to use his speed to get himself open and finish goals behind the hoops. If Cal wants to make a splash at World Cup, they’ll need to use his speed to full effectiveness.

Strategy: Cal plays a fairly balanced strategy.  On offense, either Gavin or Sam will usually run the point, and they’ll attempt to get as close to the hoops as possible. If an open shot presents itself, both will usually take it, but they’re willing to pass the ball off if they find an open receiver.  Their beaters tend to play conservatively, only coming up to challenge if they’re lack bludger control and are trying to get it back. Defensively, they set up in a relatively compact set, not usually challenging the point man until midfield at earliest, and frequently much further down the field.  Their beaters tend to focus on the quaffle carrier, leaving their chasers the responsibility of guarding the off-ball chasers.

Strengths: This team has a good amount of talent. They have some very strong individual players, and they’ve learned to harness them effectively to generate offense.  Look for them to do at least a solid job of neutralizing one-man drives against them, forcing teams to be able to pass coherently if they hope to score

Weaknesses: Their passing game hasn’t developed the cohesion you would expect from such a veteran squad.  Many of their chasers have trouble receiving the ball cleanly, and their passing isn’t as precise as one might like.  This often forces them to play as a collection of individuals rather than a team, and this lead to blowouts against more cohesive sides.

Prediction: The Bears had a great run at last year’s World Cup, but I can’t see them repeating it this year.  Expect to see them to be eliminated in pool play.

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