The men’s water polo team did not win the MPSF or NCAA championships last year, but this weekend at the SoCal Tournament Stanford is in a position to defend the one title it did pick up in 2011.
The SoCal Tournament will feature essentially the same lineup of schools as the NorCal Invitational, which Stanford placed third in two weekends ago. That lineup includes every top-10 team in the country, and if No. 4 Stanford (3-1) is to repeat its title, it will potentially have to get through No. 6 UC-Santa Barbara, No. 2 UCLA and No.1 USC.
At last week’s NorCal Invitational Stanford went 3-1, defeating Santa Clara easily before squeaking by UC-Santa Barbara on the first day. That set up a semifinal clash with defending national champion USC, to which the Cardinal lost 10-9 in overtime. Stanford bounced back to win the third-place game 9-8 over California.
Stanford was led offensively by its core of young players, who impressed not only with the number of goals they contributed but also because they scored in several crucial situations. That group includes last year’s leading scorer, sophomore Alex Bowen, who believes this team is already a lot better than it was two weeks ago.
“Our offense will keep getting better,” Bowen said. “We have a lot of good shooters who will continue to get better and learn how to play at a higher level.”
This could be a scary proposition for opponents, since true freshman driver Bret Bonanni has already proven he can score en masse against top opponents. He netted 10 goals last weekend, just one shy of Bowen’s team-leading 11 tallies.
While the most impressive thing about this team is its offensive potential, players know that their defense will determine their success against the elite teams.
“The key is defense: We need to work on our communication, shutting down major threats and 2-meters,” Bowen said.
The most notable gaffes in the defense last weekend happened at the 2-meter position. Especially against USC, a few scrums near the cage led to easy Trojan scores. Stanford will be leaning on redshirt junior 2-meter Forrest Watkins to shut down opposing center players, but senior Andrew LaForge and sophomore Nick Hoversten will take their turns guarding at 2-meters as well.
Stanford moved up one spot from No. 4 to No. 3 in the national rankings after the NorCal Tournament. The rankings for the remainder of the top six teams also mirrored their finishes at the tournament.
Because Cal dropped to No. 4, Stanford is now in line to face UCLA (12-1) in the semifinals at the SoCal Invitational if both teams win their early round games. That would be the first meeting of the season between the two teams, and it would give Stanford a chance to compete against each of the top four MPSF teams before the start of conference play.
That matchup would likely be a close one, as UCLA’s performance at the NorCal Tournament was essentially the same as Stanford’s. The Bruins defeated Cal in overtime by one goal in the semifinal, and then lost to USC by one goal in the championship game.
This weekend will also be a chance for Stanford’s freshmen to prove they can cope with any adjustments that opponents make to them. Bonanni and fellow freshman driver BJ Churnside played very well in their first collegiate games last weekend, but it also gave teams a chance to scout the new players.
It will be important for Bonanni and Churnside to deal with any defensive adjustments because they will face the likes of USC and Cal multiple times this season if they make a run at the national title.
Stanford is hoping that the first rematch with the Trojans or the Bears is this Sunday afternoon in the championship of the SoCal tournament. The tournament is hosted at UC-Santa Barbara, and each team will play four games, two on Saturday and two on Sunday, regardless of the results.
Stanford’s first game is at 10:40 a.m. against Princeton. Their opponents for the rest of the weekend will depend on other results. Stanford’s last meeting with Princeton was a 14-3 victory last year in this very same tournament.