This article is part of a running series The Daily sports staff will be publishing on Stanford sports teams.
This year, Cardinal water polo returned to the NCAA championship game for the first time in a decade but fell short of its ultimate goal of reclaiming the national title, losing to embittered rival USC in the NCAA final.
Stanford has long been one of the premier programs in the country, vying for one of four spots in the NCAA Tournament on a yearly basis. In recent years and for the majority of this century, however, Stanford has not measured up to its rival schools in the Big Four (the top four schools in the MPSF are Stanford, Cal, USC and UCLA) that are consistently in contention for the title.
Before the 2018-19 season, the Cardinal had not qualified for the national playoff at all since 2014 and last reached the final in 2008. Still, Stanford entered the season with burgeoning hope, forgetting the shortcomings of years past and determined to capitalize on an uber-talented roster.
The Stanford lineup stacked up like Voltron with every player capable of powerful individual play but even better when functioning to its best ability as a team. Redshirt sophomore standout Ben Hallock was the head of the battle-tested Cardinal, scoring 65 goals in the season and earning Mountain Sports Pacific Federation and National Player of the Year honors.
Also supercharging the aquatic Cardinal were senior Blake Parrish and juniors Bennett Williams and Dylan Woodhead. Senior Oliver Lewis would man the net as goalkeeper, springing out of the water to deflect countless shots from reaching their target.
Stanford surged out of the gate with 13 straight victories and often left opponents struggling to stay afloat in its wake. Marquee wins against then top-seeded USC and second-seeded UCLA bolstered Cardinal confidence and assured the team that it could compete with anyone.
Against Big Four competition, Stanford would sweep their matches against Cal, including an epic OT win in the Big Splash at Berkeley, best UCLA 2-1 and go 1-2 against the rival Trojans — who would deliver a soul-crushing blow to Stanford in the season finale.
Based on the play of Stanford and USC throughout the season, the vicious rivals seemed to be on a crash course for the entire season. Cal and UCLA were always threats to steal a spot in the final, but it still felt like a showdown between the cross-state competitors was predetermined. And that is exactly what fans got in the NCAA final.
Like the previous two face-offs between the teams, the final would not disappoint. Though USC threatened to blow Stanford out, leading by as many as eight goals by the end of the third period, the Cardinal nearly completed a miraculous fourth quarter comeback and ended up losing by only two goals 14-12.
Next year, Stanford will again be a favorite for the national title, still hoping for its first championship since 2002. The Cardinal return all their top players except for Parrish and Lewis but should have capable replacements and young talent to fill those holes. Look for Stanford to make another long postseason run in the fall.
Contact Andrew Tan at tandrew ‘at’ stanford.edu.