The No. 4 Stanford men’s water polo team will take on rival California in the annual Big Splash this Saturday at 5:15 p.m. Both teams are looking to improve on their Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) Tournament seeding and bolster their chances of receiving the NCAA Championship’s at-large bid.
Saturday’s game is the regular season finale for both teams, and there are postseason implications galore. No. 3 Cal (19-3, 6-1 MPSF) is currently second in the conference while Stanford (18-4, 5-2) is fourth, with the final regular season standings determining the seeding for the MPSF Tournament.
Although the top four teams have beaten each other all year long, current conference leader USC (19-2, 7-0) has emerged as the clear favorite to repeat as MPSF and NCAA champion. The Trojans have a crucial season finale as well, against co-No. 1 UCLA (19-3, 5-1), which is currently tied with Cal for second in the MPSF.
If USC wins that game and Stanford beats Cal, there will be a three-way tie for second place in the MPSF, with goal differential being the tiebreaker. The three second-place teams would also be the frontrunners for the at-large bid to the four-team NCAA Tournament, should none of them win the MPSF Tournament and take the automatic bid that accompanies the trophy.
“USC is the favorite,” said senior utility Peter Sefton, “but if they win the MPSF tournament, the at-large bid is up for grabs.”
A Stanford win in the Big Splash and a trip to the MPSF Finals would make the Cardinal the most logical choice for the at-large bid to NCAAs, but that is much easier said than done. Senior driver Alex Avery knows from experience how hard it is to win the eight-team MPSF Tournament, where last year Stanford fell short in the finals against the Trojans.
“You are pretty much guaranteed to have three tough games because all eight teams are good this year,” Avery said.
In fact, the nine teams in the MPSF are currently ranked No. 1 to No. 9 nationally.
Winning the Big Splash will be no easy task, either. Stanford’s Avery Aquatic Center will surely be sold out, as fans from both teams are eager to see this season’s rubber match. Stanford and Cal have already met twice this season, both times in early non-conference tournaments. California took the first meeting 8-7 in the third-place game of the NorCal Invitational. Stanford avenged that loss two weeks later in a 10-9 overtime battle to win the SoCal Tournament championship.
With both earlier meetings being so close, neither team seems to have a real edge going into this weekend. Stanford hopes that recent history does not repeat itself, however; the Cardinal had also split its first two meetings of the season with USC at those same tournaments, but the Trojans easily handled Stanford 8-4 in their conference meeting last month.
The Big Splash looks to be a battle of strengths, with the Bears’ potent offense going up against the stingy Stanford defense. California sits atop the MPSF in offense, averaging 12.5 goals a game, while Stanford’s defense in second in the league, allowing only 5.41 goals per game.
Saturday’s contest may well come down to which team’s go-to scorer can have the bigger impact. Cal senior driver Ivan Rackov is the MPSF’s leading scorer with 2.95 goals per game (62 overall). Stanford true freshman Alex Bowen is not far behind him, averaging 2.52 goals per game (53 total) and ranking third in the league.
Stanford hosts the Bears at Avery Aquatic Center at 5:15 p.m. Saturday night.