By Evan Burke
This weekend, the No. 5 Stanford men’s water polo team (20-7, 5-4 MPSF) will travel to Los Angeles to compete in the MPSF tournament as the No. 5 seed and will attempt to capitalize on its final chance to earn an NCAA tournament bid.
Stanford’s title hopes took another hit on Sunday against No. 2 Cal in the Big Splash — the Cardinal’s six-game winning streak came to an end as they fell to the Bears by a 13-8 margin and moved to 1-7 on the year against teams ranked in the top five.
Despite this setback, the dream of a national championship isn’t completely dead for Stanford — the MPSF winner earns an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The MPSF is far and away the elite conference in men’s water polo. The top eight seeded teams in the tournament draw — UCLA, Pacific, Cal, USC, Stanford, UC Santa Barbara, UC Irvine and Long Beach State — are also the top eight teams in the NCAA national rankings, in the same order.
On one hand, this means that Stanford will be facing the toughest competition in the nation, something that the team has struggled with this year. On the other hand, while a victory guarantees an NCAA berth, even a deep run into the MPSF tournament may be enough to bump the Cardinal into the top four and earn them an at-large bid to the championship.
Stanford’s first match is at 11:30 a.m. on Friday against fourth-seeded USC (18-5, 6-3), the host of the tournament. The Cardinal have played the Trojans three times this year already, winning the first encounter — their only top-five victory this year — but dropping the next two. Despite the loss to Cal, Stanford comes into the game with more momentum than the Trojans, who have lost three of their last four games, including a loss in their annual rivalry game against UCLA.
Friday will be incredibly important for both teams. If USC wins, it would likely have a lock for an NCAA berth and Stanford’s season will essentially be over.
However, if Stanford wins, not only will USC be out of the MPSF tournament, but also the Trojans’ NCAA berth would be in jeopardy, as the Cardinal — directly behind USC in the national rankings — could jump them with a win. Those odds of moving past Southern Cal in the rankings will grow with each Stanford win in the MPSF tournament.
Essentially, both teams are playing for their postseason lives, and the atmosphere inside USC’s Uytengsu Aquatics Center should be electric when the Cardinal and the Trojans face off.
Should Stanford prevail in its first match, the road will likely only get tougher. No. 1 UCLA (25-0, 9-0), the only undefeated team in the NCAA, is on the Cardinal’s side of the draw. No. 2 Pacific and No. 3 Cal loom as potential finals opponents should Stanford advance that far. In the regular season, the Cardinal weren’t often up to the task of playing against these other elite MPSF schools, as they posted a combined 0-3 record against the two teams.
To find success in the MPSF tournament, the Cardinal will need to play their best water polo of the season. Stanford has maintained all season that it belongs among the NCAA’s best, but has yet to prove it; this weekend will be its last — and best — chance to do so, and to fulfill its preseason aspirations of postseason success. The stakes have never been higher for the Cardinal; it’s time to see if they are up to the task.
Contact Evan Burke at eburke3 ‘at’ stanford.edu.