By Andrew Tan
On Saturday afternoon, No. 1 Stanford men’s water polo (21-3, 2-1 MPSF) romped to a 16-7 destruction of No. 7 UC San Diego (20-6, 6-1 WWPA) in the NCAA semifinals to advance to the championship game. Yet, the next day at Avery Aquatics Center, the Cardinal fell to No. 2 USC (30-3, 2-1) 14-12, continuing a 16-year championship drought for the Stanford program.
Even on Saturday, Big Game day, when hundreds of Stanford students flocked to Berkeley, Avery Aquatics Center still boasted a sizable home crowd that urged the Cardinal on as the rain cleared up after a stormy morning.
In the first quarter, sophomore Ben Hallock opened the scoring with a quick shot from the two-meter position, setting the tone for what was to be a goal-fest for Stanford. Senior Blake Parrish fired a laser over the heads of multiple Triton defenders into the top right corner of goal to help the Cardinal take an early two-goal lead. After a second goal from Hallock that caromed off the pool surface past Triton goalie Jack Turner and three subsequent goals from UCSD, the score was tied 3-3 heading into the second quarter.
The second period started off similarly to the first, with two absolute bangers, first from junior Bennett Williams and then from junior Dylan Woodhead. On the first possession of the quarter, Williams rifled a shot at goal that nearly took Turner’s hand off. Woodhead followed the score by Williams with an even more impressive trick shot that verged on comedic: He launched the ball off the crossbar into the back of Turner’s head and into the goal. Woodhead’s shot split the crowd half into utter amazement and half into hysterics. The tide seemed to be shifting toward Stanford, heavily favored in the matchup, but the Tritons would not sink easily.
Goals from Cooper Milton and Kevin Asplund sandwiched a Stanford goal from senior Marco Stanchi, keeping it a one-score game heading into a Stanford timeout with 40 seconds left in the first half. Out of timeout, the Cardinal swung the ball to sophomore Tyler Abramson, who wriggled up out of the water and blasted one into the back of the net. The score stood 7-5 at halftime, and although the Cardinal held the lead, the crowd got the sense that Stanford was going to come out with a renewed urgency to put away an opponent whom they were expected to beat.
Sure enough, Stanford came out of the half like gangbusters, with three consecutive goals and suffocating defense led by senior goalkeeper Oliver Lewis. Williams had two of the goals, and on the other, Lewis connected on a long pass to Parrish on a fastbreak. One on one, the Triton keeper had no chance and Parrish made the goal look far too easy. After allowing multiple transition goals to the Cardinal, UCSD tried to give Stanford some of its medicine with a cross-pool lob to try to open up a one-on-one matchup. Lewis read this play perfectly and came out of the goal, swallowing up the ball.
The Tritons put up a good fight in the first half, but ultimately Stanford’s superior talent took over. Lewis later said, “I attribute our success in the second half to defensive execution and stops.” Lewis certainly led this effort from the back both with his saves and leadership, earning the comment from Parrish: “He’s an absolute stud.”
The fourth quarter was more of the same. It was quite apparent that the game was over, but there were still eight minutes left to be played. Following three more quick goals from Stanchi, Woodhead and Parrish, UCSD brought in the subs.
The final whistle ended the beatdown 16-7, to which the crowd erupted into shouts of “We Want Sawyer!” — a reference to USC’s Sawyer Rhodes, who defected from Stanford to join the southern school.
The Cardinal would get Sawyer the next day, however, as they fell to the Trojans in the finals.
The Trojans appeared to be in complete control of the game from the onset, scoring four goals in the first five minutes to leave the Cardinal shell-shocked and quickly searching for answers. By the two-minute mark of the first quarter, Stanford was already in desperate need of a goal as USC, led by goalkeeper Nic Porter, was pitching a shutout. Still, USC effectively quelled any chance Stanford had of seizing some momentum going into the second quarter with a fifth goal by Jacob Mercep, his second of the match. The quarter ended 5-0 in favor of the Trojans and even more disheartening for the Cardinal; they appeared to play worse and worse the larger the deficit grew.
Though the Cardinal defense was lacking in the first period, their inability to convert on the other end further exacerbated their problems and allowed the Trojans to expand their lead even as the Cardinal defense tightened up. To their credit, the Trojans played lockdown defense throughout the first half. Mercep’s third goal opened the second on a long outlet pass from Porter, leaving him one-on-one with Oliver Lewis. It wasn’t until halfway through the second quarter that the Cardinal finally got on the board through a goal by Dylan Woodhead, which reengaged the crowd and restored hope for Stanford.
The renewed vigor of the home fans was short-lived, however, as another USC goal, this time from Hannes Daube, silenced the arena and took the Trojans into half with a 7-1 lead. During the break, the spectators, save for a few rowdy USC fans, were decidedly subdued, likely wondering how the Cardinal were to get back into the game.
Nonetheless, the Cardinal came out determined and ready to put the dismal first half behind them in the third quarter. The teams traded blows, USC matching each goal the Cardinal gained back, and gradually the game shifted from one played against the Trojans to a game against the clock. Goals from Ben Hallock, Tyler Abramson and Bennett Williams summed to three goals in the quarter for Stanford to four allowed, ending the period 4-11.
Once Mercep scored his fifth goal at the start of the fourth quarter, there was a collective sense among the home crowd that it would take a miracle to come back.
Just like that, the Cardinal began to mount a comeback. Consecutive goals from Hallock and Williams put the game within reach, and after a goal by Matt Meier, Stanford put four straight past Porter with two and a half minutes left in the game. The last two of these goals sent the stadium into absolute hysterics as Hallock first lobbed a majestic ball into the right corner of goal, and then Abramson pushed the ball into goal through sheer grit after getting his own rebound off the right post.
The final blow was delivered to the Cardinal when Hallock missed a five-meter penalty shot, the ball slipping out of his hand. Williams converted another penalty with one minute to play, bringing the score to 11-13, but time was not on Stanford’s side, and the team was forced to play force defense for any chance to get the ball back with enough time to tie the game. This strategy led to an easy goal for the Trojans, which put the contest away, and after one last Hallock goal, the score ended 14-12 USC. The Trojan bench and a few select fans mobbed the pool while the USC band played a rendition — albeit a much worse rendition — of the Stanford fight song to add insult to injury.
Stanford finished as runners-up in the NCAA Playoffs, and Hallock, Williams and Blake Parrish were named to the all-tournament team. Setting aside the disappointment of a finals loss, Stanford still had a great season, reaching the final for the first time in 10 years. Lewis acknowledged this success, saying, “We’re very proud of our accomplishments,” but also “today did not go as planned. It was very disappointing.”
The championship marked the last games for seniors Parrish, Lewis and Marco Stanchi, whom Head Coach John Vargas commended for their play and leadership: “Their role was not just to make an impact but also to inspire, and they have done that.” Williams seconded this sentiment calling them “the emotional backbone of our team for the entire season,” and Hallock added that “they’ll really be missed.”
The Cardinal finished the season 21-3 as runners-up for the national championship and hope to win it all next season.
Contract Andrew Tan at tandrew ‘at’ stanford.edu.