Its first Mountain Pacific Sports Federation championship since 2004 seemed within reach for the Stanford men’s water polo team on Sunday as it faced off against the No. 4 seeded USC in the tournament finals. In the end, however, the title just eluded the No. 2 seeded Cardinal, who fell 10-8 to the Trojans.
Other than a 1-0 lead to open the game, Stanford spent the entire match playing from behind, and the clock ran out on the Cardinal’s valiant attempt to overcome a five-goal deficit in the final period. Stanford reached the finals on the heels of a 12-6 win against seventh-seeded Long Beach State and a narrow 11-10 victory against third-seeded UCLA.
Stanford, who had just barely edged out USC two weeks earlier with a 17-16 double-overtime victory in a conference game, got on the board first thanks to top-scoring sophomore Bret Bonanni. However, the Trojans were quick to seek revenge, sandwiching a Stanford goal with three-goal and two-goal runs to take a 5-2 lead. The teams traded goals to end the half, leaving USC with a 6-3 lead.
Stanford scored to open the second half, but quickly watched as the USC offense erupted for another three-goal run. By the time the third quarter ended, the Trojans sat on a comfortable 10-5 lead.
Despite the deficit, the Cardinal refused to give up. Stanford took control of the game both offensively and defensively, completely shutting down the Trojan offense and putting pressure on USC with a three-goal run capped off by two in a row from junior Alex Bowen with the clock ticking down. However, three would not be enough for the Cardinal, who still trailed by two goals when the final whistle blew, signaling Stanford’s second-place conference finish.
In Saturday’s semifinal match, a commanding early lead and clutch defense in the final seconds gave Stanford the victory over the Bruins in order to advance to the finals. The Cardinal scored early and often to begin the game, and by the time the dust had settled and the first quarter was over, Stanford was riding a 6-1 lead. UCLA fought back over the next two quarters, but the Cardinal did not let up either and the score stood at 10-6 in favor of Stanford entering the fourth quarter.
The Bruins cut the lead to 10-7 to start the fourth, but Bowen scored on a 6-on-5 opportunity to maintain the four-goal spread. UCLA continued to pressure the Stanford defense, and Cristiano Mirarchi capped off a three-goal run by scoring at the 1:31 and 33-second marks. With only a one-goal lead, the Cardinal managed to keep the ball away from the Bruins long enough to run out the clock and secure the win. Bowen led the offense with five goals.
The first half of Friday’s quarterfinal match against Long Beach State was dead even. With neither team able to maintain a lead, the Cardinal and the 49ers entered the second half with five goals apiece.
The 49ers pulled ahead 5-6 to start the second half, but after that the Cardinal offense dug deep and never looked back. Fifth-year senior Paul Rudolph scored twice to put the Cardinal ahead 7-6, and Stanford kept going, racking up a seven-goal run before the final whistle blew. Bonanni lead the Cardinal with five goals, and Rudolph added four.
With the second-place finish, Stanford (21-5) earned an at-large bid into the upcoming NCAA tournament, which begins Thursday at Avery Aquatic Center. Stanford is the third seed out of six and takes on sixth-seeded Whittier College Thursday at 2:45 p.m.
Contact Luke Asperger at lukea17 ‘at’ stanford.edu.