The Stanford men’s water polo team will return to Southern California this weekend for a pair of top-10 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) matchups. The Cardinal will face Long Beach State at noon on Saturday and UC-Irvine at noon on Sunday.
Stanford (14-4, 3-2 MPSF) is coming off of a tough 8-4 loss to USC this past weekend, putting a damper on the momentum the Cardinal had been building in its conference season. With a win, Stanford would have moved into a tie for first place in the MPSF, but instead dropped to third with the loss.
That loss was a setback for the Stanford team, which is hoping to be in the running for an at-large bid to the NCAA Championships. It could also receive a bid to the four-team playoff by winning the MPSF Tournament.
“We pretty much need to win out now. It makes these games more important,” said junior driver Paul Rudolph.
Although neither No. 9 Long Beach State (14-6, 1-3 MPSF) nor No. 8 UC-Irvine (13-9, 1-4 MPSF) have had very much success in conference this season, they could pose some problems for the Cardinal.
UC-Irvine leads the MPSF in total goals with 266 and is third in the league with 12.09 goals per game. It also boasts the conference’s second leading scorer in sophomore driver Mitch Wise, who has scored 59 goals on the season.
The mass of goals has not led to a mass of wins though, as the Anteaters are also second in the MPSF in total goals against, having allowed 176 on the season. Those goals are split up between junior starting goalie Jimmy Friedrich, who is making 9.16 saves per game over 9.5 games, and freshman Michael Bailey, who is leading the MPSF with 10.53 saves per game over 7.5 games.
Stanford should not have trouble scoring goals against the fast-paced UC-Irvine teams, but the Cardinal’s second-ranked defense will be the key to making sure the game does not turn into a shootout. Long Beach State, on the other hand, will pose a much different challenge.
“Long Beach has a slow pace. We need to play our [faster] style, we can’t let them dictate the tempo of the game,” said Rudolph.
A good barometer for which team is more likely to have success dictating their pace will be when these two Stanford opponents face off this Thursday at Long Beach State’s Anteater Pool. The two teams are currently seventh and eighth in the nine-team conference, so their matchup will determine who will stay out of the conference cellar.
Stanford will be hoping that these games can help the team reach its peak performance level as it enters the final three weeks of the conference season and prepares for the playoffs.
“We know our system–it’s just fine tuning the little things,” said Rudolph.
Getting offensive balance will be one key for the Cardinal, which has relied heavily on freshman utility Alex Bowen for goals, as well as senior driver Jacob Smith. Bowen is third in the MPSF with 42 goals, and Smith is fifteenth with 29.
Another key for Stanford has been getting scoring from other players outside of its top scorers. In its two MPSF losses against UCLA and USC, nobody outside of the top four scorers found the net. That includes the 8-4 loss to USC, in which Bowen accounted for three of the four goals.
The Cardinal has been able to make up for some poor offensive outputs though because of its stingy defense. The team is second in the MPSF in goals allowed per game. That defense is led by senior goalie Brian Pingree, who is also second in the conference in goals allowed per game. He has not done it alone, though, as he has been the beneficiary of a defense that is allowing very few shots. Pingree is 11th in the MPSF in saves per game, at 6.55.
Stanford will face off against Long Beach State on Saturday, and then play UC-Irvine on Sunday at 12 p.m.