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Original Issue


Calamities tested Cal's NCAA champion water polo team

The remains of Tom Felsted's college belongings were handed to him in a small manila envelope. Just after midnight on Sept. 8 a fire had destroyed his fraternity house on the University of California campus at Berkeley, killing two of his fraternity brothers and a female student. The 32 other Phi Kappa Sigma residents, including 11 of his 21 teammates on the Cal water polo team, were left with no place to live.

"I looked in the envelope and there were my [NCAA] championship rings, two twisted, melted, burned pieces of metal," says Felsted, a senior who's treasurer of the Phi Kappa Sigma house and a co-captain of the water polo team. "I felt lucky. Most everyone else didn't have anything left."

Today, however, Felsted has a new championship ring to add to the now mangled ones he won in 1987 and '88. On Nov. 25, Cal beat Stanford 8-7 in the final to win the national water polo championship. The victory marked the ninth time the Golden Bears have won the title since the sport's first NCAA championship, in 1969. "We dedicated our season to the people who died," says goalie Jim Wagner, who made three blocks in the last 90 seconds of the championship game. "We wanted this for them, and for us."

The fraternity fire was tragic enough, but it was only one of several trials the Bears faced this season. Nearly three weeks after the blaze, Mehrdad Dashti, 30, a deranged Iranian-born carpenter, took 33 people hostage in a popular off-campus bar in the Durant Hotel, where the fraternity members, including the water polo players, were temporarily housed. During the 7¬Ω-hour siege, one student was shot and killed and nine other people were wounded before Dashti was killed by Berkeley police.

"It was one of the guys' birthday, and we all went up to San Francisco to celebrate," says Felsted. "Otherwise we all would have been in the bar, too. Most of us knew a lot of the people in there."

A week later Cal's water polo coach, Steve Heaston, underwent surgery to determine if the skin cancer on his left shoulder was spreading internally. Before the operation, says Heaston, "my wife and I sat down and figured out which child would get what, how we would pay off the house, what insurance money we had, all of that. For two weeks I didn't know if I would be around much longer."

Fortunately, the cancer had not spread, and although Heaston, 42, must undergo periodic testing, doctors believe they caught the disease in time. "And during all this, we had a water polo season to get through," says Heaston. "We knew we had a good team. We figured we could challenge for the title, but under these conditions...? These guys hadn't had to handle anything like this in their lives."

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. It broke out several hours after the team had left for a one-day tournament in Fresno. The next morning, when Heaston learned of the fire, he discussed with his players whether to compete in the tournament. It was decided that the entire squad would play the morning's first-round game against Pacific. However, after the Bears beat Stanford in the afternoon semifinals, four players who lived in the Phi Kappa Sigma house returned to campus. The rest of the team went on to defeat Fresno State in the championship game. When the four players reached Berkeley, they found their house in ruins and three people dead.

"Suddenly, water polo didn't mean very much anymore," says co-captain Pat Nelson, who is not a member of the fraternity. "We just tried to give our friendship and support and help everyone get through it."

The displaced Phi Kappa Sigma residents had to look for places to live and repurchase everything from textbooks to underwear. One of them was junior Chris Humbert, who led the Bears in scoring this year with a 3.2 goals-per-game average and was named MVP of the NCAA tournament. "I lost all my USA sweats, the Russian sweats I had traded for at the Goodwill Games, pictures and clippings," says Humbert, who is a member of the U.S. national team. "So much of the stuff I'll never be able to replace."

Meanwhile, Heaston consulted "every psychology professor at Cal" for advice on how to deal with his grief and that of his players. He decided that both he and the team needed to get away from school for a weekend. So the Bears spent the weekend after the fire at the beach in Santa Cruz. "We sat and talked and played football and swam in the ocean," says Nelson. "It was a release, yet we got stronger. I think we realized we needed each other a lot more."

Cal resumed play a week later, winning the Brown National Invitational in Providence on Sept. 23. Just as things were starting to return to normal, the Durant Hotel incident occurred. Humbert had recently moved into an apartment behind the hotel and was watching TV with his girlfriend when he heard gunshots. "Suddenly the police were at my door telling us to get out," says Humbert. "We lay on the floor and crawled out and had to stay out all night."

Heaston did his best to keep practices as unemotional and businesslike as possible. He says that neither he nor the players ever tried to turn their misfortunes into a team rallying point. In fact, says Heaston, the Bears "had to learn to play without any emotion at all, because they had no emotion left."

Nelson tried to keep things light, joking with his teammates and initiating ball wars during warmups. The Bears won their next nine games to arrive at 18-0. "A lot of the animosity between players just vanished," says Nelson. "We are all very competitive. Our intrasquad games are some of the toughest games we've played all year. We had some egos building, but suddenly everyone was the same. We were playing like a team."

On Oct. 14, Cal finally lost, 12-11 to Pepperdine. That would be the Bears' only defeat. They then won 10 straight games by two or more goals before beating Stanford by one goal in the NCAA final. "They played together like no team I've ever seen," says Brown senior Terive Duperier, whose team lost to the Bears in the NCAA tournament. "We heard about the fire and were really relieved that none of them were in it. We all know each other from summer leagues. What they had to go through this year, and still win it—you've got to hand it to them."

Heaston took over the program two years ago from Pete Cutino. He was an assistant coach for the 1988 U.S. Olympic team and is a favorite to be head coach in 1992. A John Madden-sized man who's usually loud and intimidating during practice, Heaston toned down this year because of all that his team had to endure. "We all tend to think we are indestructible," he says. "Especially college students. Suddenly they find out they are not. It changes them as people."

Heaston didn't push and didn't demand that water polo come first. "But eventually it did," says Felsted. "We put all our energy into playing, and I think it showed. Not a day goes by when I don't think about losing one of my best friends or what those people in the bar went through. Winning the national title won't change that, but it makes a nicer ending to the semester."

Adds Wagner, "Someone once told mc that when you don't own anything, you really know where you stand. I was left not owning anything, and I was pretty proud of where I stood. I think we all were."