The MPSF Tournament final and a chance at a berth in the NCAA Championship were in plain sight for the No. 4 Stanford men’s water polo team after three quarters of play against USC on Saturday. Then it all faded away in the course of a devastating 0-4 fourth quarter that turned a season-defining upset into a season-ending defeat.
Stanford started off the MPSF Tournament on Friday with a thrilling 11-10 victory over fifth-seeded UC-Santa Barbara. It then lost to the Trojans 8-6 in the semifinal and followed that up by losing to California 8-7 in the third-place game.
The fourth-seeded Cardinal entered Saturday’s MPSF Tournament semifinal knowing it needed to knock off top-ranked USC to have any chance at extending its season.
But after its last meeting with SC, in which the Trojans broke open an early 6-1 lead and coasted to a 8-4 victory, there was some doubt surrounding the likelihood of Stanford pulling off the upset. USC is also on a 13-game winning streak that extends back to Oct. 2. To top it all off, the Cardinal’s leading scorer, freshman utility Alex Bowen, was unable to play because of a case of mono.
This game was anything but one-sided, though. Both teams came out on fire from the start, with USC taking the early 3-2 first-quarter advantage. Junior 2-meter Forrest Watkins seemed determined to single-handedly carry the Stanford team, as he scored both first-quarter goals. Watkins scored another two goals in the second quarter as he continued to put the team on his back. Goals from junior driver Paul Rudolph and senior driver Travis Noll completed a four-goal second quarter that had the Cardinal up 6-4 at halftime.
The unexpectedly high-scoring first half would not last, though, as USC’s top-ranked and Stanford’s second-ranked defenses dominated a scoreless third period. Senior goalie Brian Pingree, who was having one of his best games of the season, played a huge part for Stanford.
With a 6-4 lead going into the fourth quarter, the Cardinal’s entire season was in the balance. A win would give the team a chance to take home the MPSF trophy and the automatic NCAA bid that comes with it. With a history of winning close games all season, a strong fourth quarter was almost expected.
But just 20 seconds into the frame, USC’s Nikola Vavic notched the first goal of the half. Minutes later the score was tied, and by the end of the quarter, Stanford was headed to the consolation bracket.
Friday’s 11-10 win over UC-Santa Barbara ensured that Stanford would not lose to any team outside the top four nationally this season. The close game was expected, though, as Stanford had to come from behind to beat the Gauchos 6-5 earlier in the season.
Noll paced the team with three goals, Rudolph continued a strong end to his season with another two goals and Watkins added another two. Redshirt junior 2-meter Andrew LaForge added a goal, as did senior drivers Jacob Smith and Ryan Kent. Senior utility Peter Sefton had the eventual game-winner, which was his only goal of the game. Pingree ended the game with 10 saves.
The third-place game against Cal was another rematch of a recent blowout. The Golden Bears humiliated host Stanford 11-4 in both teams’ season finale just a week ago. Sunday’s 8-7 loss was much closer but no easier to stomach.
Rudolph continued his recent goal-scoring trend, netting a hat trick that came on the back of multiple two-goal games. His goal and another by Watkins gave Stanford an early two-goal cushion. Yet for a second-straight game, a second-half letdown put the Cardinal on the wrong side of the score sheet. A 4-2 Cal third quarter gave the Golden Bears the second-half lead, which they never relinquished.
Pingree made seven saves in the game, and Noll, Smith and redshirt junior 2-meter Ryan Brown added one goal apiece.
Stanford finished the season at 19-7 and will likely end the year ranked fourth. The Cardinal also finished with a 5-3 regular-season MPSF record, which was good enough for fourth place, the same place the team finished in the tournament.