By James Hemker
On Saturday and Sunday, the Stanford men’s water polo team will fight in the end-of-season Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament at USC as the conference’s first seed.
Stanford (18-2, MPSF 2-1) snatched their top spot in a thrilling 12-11 overtime victory in the Big Splash against Cal last weekend. The score remained close the entire game, with neither team leading by more than a goal until overtime when Stanford hung a 12-10 lead on the Golden Bears.
Despite their high status, winning the tournament will be an arduous task for the Cardinal, who have been unable to conquer the conference since 2004. This fact does not come out of Stanford’s abilities but from the strength of their competition. Tournament seeds two, three and four belong to USC (28-1, 2-1), Cal (16-5, 1-2) and UCLA (20-3, 1-2), respectively. Nationally, the teams are ranked No. 1 USC, No. 2 Stanford, No. 3 UCLA and No. 4 California.
These four schools are, simply put, the best men’s water polo programs in the nation. One of these four teams has won the NCAA championship for the past 19 seasons. By virtue of this, the MPSF is the greatest water polo conference in the country. Since the kickoff of the NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championship in 1969, every team that has won was either an MPSF team or the school would join the MPSF in the conference’s inception in 1992.
The formation of the Golden Coast Conference out of the MPSF in 2016 dropped the number of teams to four; however, the additions of Austin College and Penn State Behrend this year have raised the total to six teams. Consequently, Stanford and USC earned first round byes this year and will not play on Friday.
Austin College and Penn State Behrend will first play to determine the fifth and sixth seeds. Stanford’s game on Saturday will then feature the winner between UCLA and the fifth seed. Barring a Thanksgiving miracle, this is a collision course for another Cardinal-Bruins showdown.
The two teams have met twice this year, and both games were defensive showcases. Stanford first overcame UCLA 8-7 in the MPSF invitational. This contest marked the fewest goals in a game this season for either team. The teams then met for their official conference match just two weeks ago at UCLA, where the Bruins’ stifling defense managed to stave off Stanford in a 10-8 victory.
Depending on Saturday’s results, Stanford will then play the winner or the loser of USC and (presumably) Cal. The Cardinal were victorious over both in their conference games this season, beating USC 13-11 and Cal 12-11.
Saturday’s game will start at 11 a.m. PST. On Sunday, the third place game is at 1 p.m. PST while the championship will take place at 3 p.m. PST. All games will be played in the Uytengsu Aquatics Center in Los Angeles.
Contact James Hemker at jahemker ‘at’ stanford.edu