The 2011 season ended on a bitter note for the No. 4 men’s water polo team this past weekend in Los Angeles, marked by another top squad’s unsuccessful campaign to bring a national championship home to the Farm.
Stanford ended the season at 19-7 overall and 5-3 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF). The team finished fourth in the MPSF regular season standings and also took fourth in the MPSF Tournament, behind No. 2 UCLA (23-4, 6-2 MPSF), No. 1 USC (22-3, 8-0) and No. 3 California (20-3, 7-1). (At the time of production, the most recent NCAA rankings, released on Nov. 23, reflected USC as the No. 1 team. It is likely that No. 1 USC and No. 2 UCLA will switch positions to reflect UCLA’s victory in the MPSF Tournament.)
The Cardinal ended its season with three losses in the span of a week, two of them at the hands of rival California and the other to USC in a game that ended Stanford’s hopes for the conference tournament and national title. The rough ending, however, should not take away from an otherwise solid season.
“It was a good season,” said junior driver Paul Rudolph, “even though we ended with three bad losses.”
The biggest highlight of the season was winning the SoCal Tournament in early October, something Stanford had not done since 2002. In the course of that tournament, the Cardinal defeated both USC and California. That weekend “we proved that we could play with anyone,” Rudolph said. Looking back, redshirt sophomore goalie Hunter Ploch noted, “The second day of SoCals was definitely the biggest day of the season.”
Ploch will be taking center stage this offseason alongside fellow redshirt sophomore goalie Scott Platshon. One of those two will have to step up next year to replace redshirt senior goalie Brian Pingree, who has been the starter for the past two seasons and was named honorable mention All-MPSF this year.
“It’s always hard losing a senior goalie,” Rudolph said when talking about next season.
Two players the Cardinal will not have to worry about replacing are freshman utility Alex Bowen and redshirt sophomore 2-meter Forrest Watkins.
“I am really exited about next year,” said Platshon with regards to the teams’ outlook. “Both our top offensive and top defensive players in Alex and Forrest are returning.”
Bowen and Watkins were the stars of the 2011 team. Bowen, a true freshman, led the team with 2.41 goals per game, which was good enough for third in the MPSF. He finished the year with 52 goals.
Bowen has “surprised everyone,” said coach John Vargas earlier in the season. Rudolph added that it is “almost unheard of” for a freshman to have that type of goal-scoring season. His statistics this season were so special that he was named MPSF Newcomer of the Year in addition to being named to the All-MPSF First Team. There is still a great upside for Bowen, though, as he will be looked at to improve on his defense in the offseason.
Watkins, on the other hand, has as complete a game as anyone could ask for. Not only is he the team’s best 2-meter defender, he was also tied for second on the team in scoring this season. Watkins has also been honored with an All-MPSF First Team selection for his outstanding season.
“He is our backbone,” Vargas said. “We go as he goes.”
Within the first weeks of the season, Watkins had already eclipsed his season total of seven goals from last year. He finished the 2011 campaign with 42. With that level of offseason improvement, only time will tell how high his ceiling can be for next season.
Two players to look out for next season will be Rudolph and redshirt sophomore driver Ian Gamble. Rudolph started off this season slowly on the offensive end, but picked up his scoring pace significantly at the tail end of the season. He finished the year by netting a hat trick against California in the MPSF third-place game.
Rudolph spoke highly of his fellow classmate Gamble, saying, “He is a good player, and it is starting to show.” Gamble cracked the regular playing rotation this season and earned more and more playing time as the season progressed.
Amid all of this optimism there were still some definite low points for the Cardinal. Stanford did not lose to any opponent ranked outside of the top four nationally, but they were unsuccessful against the elite teams. Outside of the SoCal Tournament, Stanford was 0-7 against the top three teams, losing three times to both USC and California and once in its only contest against UCLA.
The Cardinal will also lose two of its top four scorers to graduation: senior driver Jacob Smith and senior utility Peter Sefton, who received honorable mention honors to the All-MPSF team this year. Smith has accounted for 156 goals in his Stanford career and was named to the All-MPSF Second Team.
“Replacing Jacob will be a huge challenge for next year,” Platshon said. “He was one of the prolific scorers in Stanford polo history and was constantly a target of other top schools’ defenses.”
Stanford has not won a national championship since 2002, but a strong core of returning players and the possibility of a strong recruiting class that includes the top recruit in the nation should put them right back in the running come next season.