By James Hemker
Tomorrow afternoon, men’s water polo returns to the NCAA tournament for their 32nd appearance and the first since 2014. The Cardinal (20-2, MPSF 2-1) enter the scene ranked as the best team in the nation after triumphing over No. 2 UCLA and No. 4 Cal in the MPSF end-of-season tournament two weeks ago. This championship has an extra layer of significance as Stanford will play host for the first time in five years.
Despite their success this season, the team is hungry for the coveted NCAA title which has eluded the Cardinal since 2002. Only redshirt senior goalkeeper Oliver Lewis was a member of the 2014 team that eventually finished third overall. As a result, the team is full of new blood ready to write their names in Stanford’s illustrious water polo history.
Lewis serves as the backboard of Stanford’s stalwart defense which holds teams to an average of 7.36 goals a game. Lewis also posts an impressive 11.15 saves/game average. Stanford’s strength on defense gives the offense more opportunities to convert possessions into goals.
Opposing goalkeepers spend the game under a constant Cardinal barrage, which is led by sophomores 2M Ben Hallock and driver Tyler Abramson, and junior driver Bennet Williams. Hallock (57 goals), Williams (52 goals), and Abramson (50 goals) have combined for more than half of the team’s total goals (305) this season. On average, Stanford scores 14.39 goals to their opponent’s 7.36 goals.
The Cardinal will face No. 7 UC San Diego in the semifinal round. Stanford and UCSD did not cross paths this year, but when they last battled in 2016, the Cardinal picked up a decisive 15-5 win. Since that same 2016 season, Stanford has gone undefeated against teams ranked fifth or higher.
UCSD comes into the game after upsetting No. 5 Long Beach State to the tune of 14-9. The Tritons have a solid defense that allows an average of 8.44 goals a game. Their offense, which produces 12.30 goals a game, will need to be in top form if they hope to outgun the Cardinal artillery.
On the other side of the bracket, No. 2 USC will face off against No. 2 UCLA (featuring a rare tie in the rankings). Assuming Stanford can pull off their Saturday win, Sunday’s finals will be an MPSF bout for the fifth straight year. The three powerhouses match up evenly, as the Cardinal are 1-1 against the Trojans and 2-1 against the Bruins on the season.
See Stanford rattle the cage against the Tritons at 3 p.m. PST tomorrow in Avery Aquatics Center. USC and UCLA will duke it out right after at 5 p.m. PST. The final will take place on Sunday at 3 p.m. PST.
Contact James Hemker at jahemker ‘at’ stanford.edu.