The NCAA national championship game fell just out of reach for the Stanford men’s water polo team at Avery Aquatic Center on Saturday. After battling from behind for the majority of the game, the No. 3 Cardinal pulled ahead of No. 2 University of the Pacific and maintained a lead with just over three minutes remaining in the contest. However, Stanford could not hold off the Pacific offense, which tied the game and took the lead in the final minutes.
In a game plagued by too many Stanford exclusions, Pacific took advantage of the power play, scoring on seven of its 12 6-on-5 opportunities. By the time Pacific took its final lead, both junior Alex Bowen and fifth-year senior Forrest Watkins were out of the game for good with three ejections apiece.
In the final 46 seconds Stanford managed two shots, the first a bar out from sophomore B.J. Churnside, but Stanford was able to recover the rebound. The Cardinal drew an ejection with 14 seconds left on the clock and made one last attempt to send the game into overtime on the power play. Senior Nick Hoversten’s buzzer beater sailed wide, however, dashing the Cardinal’s title hopes.
Stanford faced an uphill battle entering the second half down 6-4. The Cardinal fought back, and a minute into the half, junior Conner Cleary received the ball at 2-meters, spun around and lobbed the ball over the head of Pacific goalie Alex Malkis to cut the deficit to one. Bowen followed suit by drilling a shot into the high corner on a power play to tie everything a 6-6.
Pacific scored again to take back the lead, but fifth-year senior Paul Rudolph netted a goal on another power play, and Churnside followed with one from the point to give Stanford its first lead since the first quarter. The Tigers evened the score after another Stanford ejection to send the game into the fourth quarter tied at 8-8.
To start the period, Churnside once again netted the go-ahead goal, but the lead was short-lived. The Tigers’ top scorer and last year’s national player of the year Balazs Erdelyi, whom the Cardinal defense had managed to hold scoreless for the first three quarters, ripped a shot into the high corner. Watkins responded with a picture-perfect lob into the top right corner, but Erdelyi scored again on a counter a few plays later, and then Alex Ober scored two minutes later to put Pacific up for good.
Saturday’s game marks the end of a title chase for the Cardinal that saw late-season victories against higher-seeded UCLA and USC. Stanford clawed out the Bruins for the final at-large berth in the NCAA tournament and rolled past a much-overmatched Whittier team 20-3 to the semifinals. On Sunday, the Cardinal finished its season with a no-doubt 17-2 victory over St. Francis Brooklyn to claim third place in the tournament. Later Sunday, No. 1 USC defeated Pacific 12-11 for its sixth consecutive NCAA championship.
The future looks promising for a team filled with young players. Graduating this year are seniors Forrest Watkins, Paul Rudolph and Scott Platshon. The Cardinal will miss the defensive prowess of Watkins especially, but will look next year to the leadership and talent of Bonanni, Bowen and freshman goalie Drew Holland.
Contact Luke Asperger at lukea17 ‘at’ Stanford.edu.