By Andrew Tan
On Saturday afternoon, No. 3 Stanford men’s water polo (18-2, 2-1 MPSF) sunk No. 4 California (16-5, 1-2 MPSF) 12-11 in double overtime in the Big Splash at Spieker Aquatics Complex. Neither team led by more than a goal throughout the entire match until Stanford pulled away 12-10 in overtime to a lead that the Bears were unable to equal.
The buildup to the heavyweight bout, pitting two of the nation’s “Big Four” — Stanford, Cal, USC and UCLA — against one another, prepared the large contingent of Bears fans and small but loyal group of traveling Cardinal supporters for the intensity of the boat race that was to follow. One might imagine “Smoke on the Water” playing in the background during warm-ups — indicative of both the weather conditions that threatened to cancel the game and the fervor and alacrity with which the Cardinal and Bears respectively approached the contest.
From the first whistle, the Cardinal played possessed, countering the packed home crowd by matching Cal goal for goal, cannoning the ball past Cal goalkeeper Bernardo Carelli and threatening to force Cal’s athletic department to pay for new nets. Like a naval battle or a Comedy Central roast, many shots were fired. The first half featured six goals from each side including three for Stanford junior Bennett Williams.
Out of the halftime break, a sense of urgency inspired the play of both teams, especially on the defensive side. The third quarter ended with a buzzer beater lob by Cal’s Safak Simsek which seemed to swing all the momentum in favor of the Bears heading into the fourth with a 8-7 advantage. The Cardinal remained undeterred. Senior goalie Oliver Lewis built a wall in front of goal, blocking shots at will. Lockdown defense from the likes of redshirt sophomore Ben Hallock, sophomore Tyler Abramson and freshman AJ Rossman stifled the Bears attack, forcing Cal into hibernation. Still, the Cardinal trailed by a goal within the last five minutes of regulation.
Driving into Cal territory as the game neared the four-minute mark, Williams faked a shot on goal, causing his own defender to wriggle out of the water and drawing another to potentially dive in front to prevent the shot. This maneuver opened up a window of opportunity for Abramson, whose defender was the main casualty of Williams’s trickery, and with a glint in his eye, Williams tossed the yellow orb into the awaiting grasp of Abramson’s left hand.
Abramson, wading on the goalie’s left flank, wasted no time as he skied above the water’s surface and fired a shot blasting past Carelli and into the back right corner of the goal. After knotting the score up 9-9, Abramson celebrated with his best rendition of an orca whale screaming at the sky, unleashing a primal shout that brought the few Stanford fans to their feet.
Stanford channeled this enthusiasm heading into the first period of overtime, with a quick goal by Hallock, before Cal’s Vassilis Tzavaras tied the game again at ten apiece. A late barrage from the Cardinal saw the score change to 12-10 in Stanford’s favor with Abramson and Williams each scoring their fourth goals of the match. From there, the Bears attempted to bail out water from a sinking ship with a solo cup, getting one goal back in the final second of the game as consolation.
The game ended with the Cardinal victorious and with the help of a USC victory over UCLA later that afternoon, Stanford secured the No. 1 seed in the critical MPSF tournament this upcoming weekend. The Cardinal earned a bye in the first round and will play either UCLA, Austin College or Penn State Behrend in the semifinals at USC’s Uytengsu Aquatic Center.
Contact Andrew Tan at tandrew ‘at’ stanford.edu