For a little over two quarters, it looked like No. 5 Stanford was just as good, if not better, than USC’s dominant top-ranked water polo team. With a one-goal margin at halftime, the table was set for a repeat of the overtime thriller these two teams played back on Sept. 16 at the NorCal Invitational.
Then, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, USC (15-0, 2-0 MPSF) ambushed the back of the Cardinal net and put the game out of reach with four third-quarter goals and a stalwart defensive display. The first of those goals came less than 30 seconds into the second half, and the Trojans followed it up with another before 60 seconds had ticked off the game clock.
“In the second half, our defense broke down due to errors on our part,” = senior driver Travis Noll said. “We knew what they were going to do, but still made mistakes and fell into their traps. They consistently capitalized on these mistakes.”
Stanford (6-3, 0-1 MPSF) struggled to take advantage of its own chances offensively, managing no more than two goals in any quarter in the 9-6 loss. After a goal from sophomore utility Alex Bowen put Stanford up 3-2 with 7:39 left in the second quarter, the Cardinal failed to score again before halftime.
The next Stanford goal, scored by junior two-meter Forrest Watkins less than a minute into the second half, kept the game close at 5-4. But then Stanford went on another scoring drought of over seven minutes that spanned the rest of the backbreaking third quarter.
Bowen scored his second at the start of the fourth quarter to bring Stanford within 8-5, but by then all of the momentum clearly belonged to USC and that was the extent of the Cardinal comeback.
The aggressive and physical defense played by USC disrupted Stanford’s offense and limited the number of quality possessions and shots they could get off. USC goalie James Clark needed only nine saves in the game–far fewer than the 16 made by Stanford’s redshirt junior goalie Scott Platshon.
Conspicuously absent from the Cardinal score line until the final 18 seconds were two of Stanford’s best shooters, freshman driver BJ Churnside and freshman utility Bret Bonanni. The two of them combined for three goals in the 10-9 overtime loss earlier this season, but they were both held scoreless this Saturday until Bonanni netted a consolation goal in the last possession.
“They play a really tough press, but ultimately once they drop we just have to be able to put our shots away and that didn’t happen as easily as we would’ve liked in the second half,” Bonanni said.
All indications are that the road to the 2012 NCAA Championship will go through four-time defending champion USC, which has already beaten every team ranked in the top six. After the loss, Stanford is hoping it gets another chance to meet USC again in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation playoffs, the NCAA tournament, or both, and the team was seemingly upbeat about their chances to take down the Trojan juggernaut.
“We know we can beat them if we manage to play a game similar to that of the first half,” Noll said, adding, “It will take four quarters of quality water polo, not just two. We have to play with intensity and discipline the entire game.”
Bonanni shared that sentiment, and despite his struggles against USC he maintains a gung ho attitude about their match-up.
“They are just a clutch team, but we can definitely beat them,” he said.