By Cybele Zhang
Cardinal men’s water polo knows no team better than UCLA. In fact, 40% of Stanford’s games this season were against the Bruins.
Coming into Saturday’s NCAA semifinal game, No. 3 UCLA (8-7, 5-5 MPSF) led their rival 2-1 in head-to-head matchups this season, but the No. 1 Cardinal (6-4, 3-3 MPSF) won the latest meeting on Mar. 6 by three — the largest point-margin of any of the game between the teams this season.
And just like the three prior match ups, this weekend’s meeting at Uytengsu Aquatics Center at USC between the intraconference foes was neck-and-neck until the final minutes — the final two minutes to be precise.
The rival schools traded goals throughout the afternoon, but it came down to senior driver Tyler Abramson’s equalizer with 1:43 remaining that tied the score at 10.
The final minutes, however, proved fatal. Bruin attacker Tommy Gruwell found the back of the net just 30 seconds later to retake the UCLA lead in what would turn out to be the game winner.
Stanford called its last time out with 48 seconds left on the clock but were unable to put more points on the board, ending its season with an 11-10 defeat.
The Bruins held a slim 27-25 shot advantage over the course of the game but were 8-10 on power play opportunities.
With the win, UCLA moved on to the final versus USC in the Trojans’ home pool, where the Bruins secured a 7-6 victory and national title.
The road to the No. 1 seed
Despite entering the game as the top ranked team and reigning champion, it would have been hard to imagine the Cardinal competing at all, much less making a deep tournament run, just months ago.
Like all Stanford Athletics teams, the water polo team was forced to abide by some of the nation’s most restrictive precautions in Santa Clara County, and head coach John Vargas noted that it was meaningful that the players were able to compete at all this year. Instead of playing a 20+ game season beginning in September, Stanford only took the pool 10 times this season after starting competition in February.
While most NCAA men’s water polo teams began practice in late December, Stanford was only able to report to campus on Jan. 4, and the limited practice and altered routines showed at first. The Cardinal missed its opening tournament due to COVID-19 restrictions and opened the season 1-3. But Stanford hit its stride in late February and put together a five-game win streak and took home an unprecedented third MPSF title.
“One of our team goals was resilience, and I think through COVID we’ve really been able to take everything that’s been thrown at us and take it with a smile and make the best of it — whether it being tested nine times a week or having strict rules or having to wear a mask all the time,” junior 2-meter AJ Rossman said. “It could’ve been easy to have a really bad attitude, but I think this team has been really awesome with how we’ve prepared ourselves and followed all the rules. It’s been awesome to see.”
Rossman and junior driver Quinn Woodhead each added three points for the Cardinal against UCLA and will likely be key components in a potential tournament run next season to seek the program’s 12th NCAA title.