No. 5 Stanford visits division rivals UC-Santa Barbara and Pepperdine this weekend in what is already a pivotal set of games only a week into the regular season. At 6-3 overall and 0-1 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF), a Cardinal loss to either team could be enough to end their postseason hopes unceremoniously and very early.
The stakes are high most seasons for the men’s water polo team. Only four teams make it to the NCAA tournament, and three of those spots are given to the champions of conference tournaments. That means the remaining contenders are vying for only one at-large bid, and a bad loss can cripple the season.
The significance of this weekend comes from the fact that No. 2 UC-Santa Barbara (14-3, 0-0) has thrown its hat into that pool of top contenders. Usually a good, but not elite, team, the Gauchos leapt into the standings after a second-place finish at the SoCal Tournament. Behind support from their home fans, along with a little home-field advantage due to abnormalities in their pool, UCSB beat giants UCLA and Stanford before losing to undefeated USC.
“It was tough playing in their pool because there is a shallow end and a deep end,” said senior driver Alex Avery after the loss in the SoCal Tournament. “But we have had a chance to get used to it, and it shouldn’t be an issue next time we play there.”
Stanford’s first and only MPSF game thus far was a 9-6 drubbing by No. 1 USC. That loss directly followed the Cardinal’s fifth-place finish at the SoCal Tournament, where it lost to UCSB. Most teams’ national rankings to this point, including UCSB and Stanford’s, reflect their finish at that tournament. The Cardinal is hoping to prove that the rankings don’t reflect actual talent, but rather a small sample size.
“The rankings don’t mean much right now,” Avery said. “As the season goes on they will sort themselves out.”
To get back on track this weekend, Stanford will have to limit its exclusions. In the 12-9 loss to UCSB, four starters were majored–expelled from the game for their third exclusion penalty–which led to a disastrous fourth quarter.
“We need to force their shooters to beat us from the outside so we don’t get ejections late in the shot clock at the set,” said junior goalie Scott Platshon.
Those shooters will likely be Matt Gronow (37 goals) and Evan Dellinger (34), who lead the Guachos in goals. If Stanford’s attack can get past UCSB goalie Miles Christian–third in the MPSF at 11.45 saves per game–it will be critical for two-meter players Andrew LaForge and Conner Cleary to fill the gap and give Platshon a chance in goal.
Regardless of what happens against UCSB, Stanford will not be able to afford letting off the gas against Pepperdine on Sunday. While the No. 8 Waves (7-5, 0-0) are not considered a threat in the MPSF and have already lost to the Cardinal this year at the SoCal Tournament, Stephen Loomis and Matthew DeTrane have picked it up on the offensive end and led the team to two consecutive wins last weekend.
The match against the Gauchos is set to begin Saturday at noon, with the tip against the Waves slated for Sunday at 1 p.m. from Malibu.