The Stanford men’s water polo team recently ascended to No. 1 in the Collegiate Water Polo Association rankings thanks to two wins over top-five teams at the SoCal Tournament. But that ranking will likely take a hit, as the Cardinal dropped a tight 7-6 decision to No. 3 UCLA on Saturday.
The flow of the game was very similar to the Cardinal’s last game on Oct. 9, when it beat UC-Santa Barbara 6-5. In both meetings Stanford trailed 4-2 at the half and continually found itself conceding goals immediately after equalizing the score.
But in that thriller, senior driver Jacob Smith came up with a huge goal to win the game in the final seconds. Last weekend’s game had no such heroics. Instead, Stanford (9-3, 2-1 MPSF) turned the ball over with less than 30 seconds remaining in the contest, giving up a chance to equalize and possibly force overtime.
The loss ended Stanford’s six-game winning streak and was also the team’s first loss in conference play, dropping the Cardinal into a three-way tie for second place at 2-1.
All of Stanford’s goals came from the top three scorers on the team—freshman utility Alex Bowen had three, Smith had two and redshirt sophomore two-meter Forrest Watkins had one.
The inability to get a balanced offensive attack and get goals from other players was one reason the Cardinal couldn’t come up with another close win, something Stanford needs to do as it matches up with such tough competition in conference play—four of Stanford’s past six games have been decided by one goal, and all six were against teams ranked No. 8 or higher.
“We expect [close games] because the top eight teams are all so good and so close,” said redshirt junior driver Alex Avery.
Nine of the Cardinal’s 12 games have been against teams currently ranked in the top eight nationally. The remainder of the season will only get tougher, though, as all eight of those teams play in the MPSF.
Although Bowen, Smith and Watkins have clearly been the bedrocks of the attack all season, having other players get on the board helps open up opportunities for Stanford’s big outside shooters. And the Card has seen several young players step up in key spots already this season.
“Everyone has a role on the team,” Avery said. “It would be nice if other players could get some in, but [Bowen, Smith and Watkins] are out there to score goals.”
Smith tallied the opening goal of the day, but it went downhill from there as UCLA scored four of the next five to pull ahead. Some exceptional team defense from the Bruins kept Stanford’s offense at bay for most of the first half.
Two lob shot goals that floated over senior goalie Brian Pingree, who finished with seven saves, were the difference going into the half. His counterpart, Matt Rapacz, ended the day with only five saves, but most of that was due to UCLA’s outside defenders blocking shots before they could reach the cage.
Stanford mounted a comeback behind a strong third quarter in which the Cardinal outscored the Bruins 3-1. The Cardinal could never get a lead, though, and continued to trade goals throughout the half.
A UCLA ejection with under a minute to play gave Stanford a chance, but unlike last weekend, the Cardinal was unable to take advantage of a late power play.
Avery acknowledged that this may not have been the team’s best showing, but he welcomes an opportunity to play the Bruins again.
“We will definitely be ready when it comes to the playoffs,” he said.
Following the loss, Stanford now goes into one of its more grueling weekends of the season. The Cardinal travels to Stockton to face No. 6 Pacific on Friday night before taking on four East Coast schools over two days at the Rodeo Tournament in Santa Clara, Calif.