Men’s NCAA Water Polo Final Four Preview

WESTCHESTER, Calif., December 4. CAL'S Golden Bears won the MPSF men's water polo tournament last weekend at Los Alamitos, defeating Pepperdine, 9-8, for the championship.

Stanford not only didn't make it into the final match (having lost to Cal in the semis), the Cardinal was also defeated by UCLA in the battle for third place.

Yet who's top-seeded going into this weekend's NCAA Final Four at Loyola-Marymount University here?

If you said defending NCAA water polo champ Stanford you must have been reading the minds of the selection committee..

Despite its two-match losing streak, the Cardinal (22-5) has been selected by the NCAA as the tournament's top-seeded team with Cal second, U Cal San Diego third and Queens College fourth.

Pepperdine, which arguably could be considered the nation's top team, having won the MPSF regular season crownm and having beaten Stanford for third place in the MPSF tournament, was not invited to compete.

Stanford will play UCSD (19-1/Western Water Polo Assn. champs) in the first semifinal at noon Saturday, Dec. 7. California (19-6/MPSF champ) and Queens College (24-3/Eastern Water Polo Assn., champs) square off at 1:30 PM PST. Sunday's schedule begins with the consolation game at noon, followed by the Championship game at 1:30 PM.

Stanford is making a record 23rd NCAA Final Four appearance and is defending champ, having stopped UCLA's two-year title run at its home Avery Aquatic Center last December, 8-5.

The Cardinal has won nine NCAA men's championships and the women's polo title last spring over UCLA. Stanford has played in the championship match 15 times since 1976, more than any other school. Its six title-losing matches included three to Cal (!) and one each to USC, Irvine and UCLA.

Stanford and UCLA are also the only schools to ever run the table, i.e., go through a season undefeated and win the championship.

Stanford's done it twice, both under Dettamante: in
'81 (31-0) and again five years later (36-0). The '86 Cardinal team's 36 wins are the most ever too.

If the Cardinal motto last season was, "Win one for Dante" in reference to retiring coach Dante Dettamante's final match (which he, of course, won), then this year it could well be: "Win one for the rookie" in reference to first-year coach John Vargas.

A former U Cal Irvine All-America a few "moons" ago, Vargas came to The Farm from Southern California prep powerhouse Corona del Mar High, where he guided the Sea Kings to the last three CIF Southern Section DII Championships.

If he wins the NCAA Championship, he'll be the first rookie coach to accomplish this feat, as will Cal coach Kirk Everist if the Golden Bears triumph.

Ironically, Corona del Mar was moved to the CIF's top division this season — Division 1 — and finished runner-up to defending champ Long Beach Wilson. Wilson just happens to be the alma mater of Stanford's Tony Azevedo, MPSF Player of the Year the last two seasons and last year's NCAA Player of the Year.

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Cal's Golden Bears are guided by first-year coach Everist, who came to his alma mater after a brilliant 11-year high-school coaching career at Miramonte in nearby Orinda, CA. Cal has won a record 11 NCAA Championships and, by virtue of its MPSF title, is in an excellent position to add No. 12 this weekend.

Cal last won NCAAs a decade ago and its last championship game appearance was in 1995 when it lost to UCLA, 10-8. Cal is the only school to win three straight championships and Da Bears have done it twice, '73-'75 and '90-'92. They also reached the finals in '89 and '93 after having won two straight titles, but lost each time.

Cal and Stanford have a storied tradition in water polo dating back some 30-plus years. The duo kept the 2002 season interesting with each of their four matches having been decided by one goal. Stanford leads the all-time series, 51-50-3. The teams are even this year at 2-2 but Cal won the most recent and, arguably, the most important — the MPSF semifinal match last Saturday.

Their first game of the season pitted the cross-Bay rivals against each other in the SoCal Tournament semifinal game at USC in mid-September, with Stanford winning, 8-7. Azevedo and Hudnut tallied three goals apiece while goalie Nick Ellis collected nine saves.

The teams didn't meet again until Cal visited The Farm on Nov. 2 and claimed a 9-8 victory over their host. Azevedo rifled home four goals to lead all scorers, but Cal goalie Russell Bernstein recorded 12 saves to stump the Cardinal.

On Nov. 23rd ("The Big Splash"), Stanford went to Berkeley for Cal's Senior Day and came home with an 8-7 win as Azevedo again put up four goals to lead both teams — and Bernstein again collected 12 saves for the Golden Bears.

In last week's MPSF semis, Cal downed Stanford, 8-7, by scoring three goals in the fourth-quarter, including two four-meter penalty shots. In goal, both keepers had impressive days, combining for 19 saves. California went on to win the MPSF Championship, earning the automatic bid to the NCAA Championship Tournament.

Cal's attack is more balanced than Stanford's (nobody in college polo can match Azevedo's firepower) and All-MPSF first-teamer Attila Banhidy — a former member of his native Hungaryu's 18-under national team — has fine offensive skills and is a tenacious defender too.

Bernstein's net work against Stanford in the semis and Pepperdine in the finals was non-pareil but he'll have his work cut out for him presuming Cal and Stanford meet in Sunday's finals.

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UCSD has made it into the NCAA finals once, losing to UCLA, 11-2, three years ago. (No team outside California has ever won the NCAA polo crown since the tournament's inaugural championship in '69. Nor has any non-California team even made it into the championship game.)

Stanford has faced UC San Diego twice this season and claimed two victories over the Tritons. Stanford defeated UCSD, 14-5, in mid-September at La Jolla; then triumphed the next day, 10-4, at the SoCal Tourmanent.

The Stanford-UCSD matchup is a family affair with three sets of brothers on opposite sides of the pool: Stanford goalie Ellis and his younger brother, Triton utility man Matt; Cardinal freshman Thomas Hopkins and older brother Jonathan; and first-year Stanford assistant coach Brian Kreutzkamp and older brother Brad, a third-year UCSD assistant.

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Queens has never played any of the other three schools and is making its initial Final Four appearance. The Knights earned their NCAA bid by winning the Eastern Championship, their second conference title in the last five years. Queens College is coached by Derek Ellingson, in his third year at the helm of the program. The Knights are led by freshman John Prokhin, who has scored 58 goals this season.

Sophomore teammate goalkeeper Vedran Sokac has an impressive 249 saves and allowed only 169 goals as the Knights finished with a 24-3 record.

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Stanford's 22 wins this year match its victory total from last season's championship team. The Cardinal, with an .815 winning percentage, is currently claiming victories over its opponents by an average margin of 4.6 goals per game.

After scoring eight goals in the MPSF tournament, Azevedo has 90 for the season and is No. 1 nationally — both overall and in goals per game (3.3). He also averaged 3.6 in MPSF play. The 6-4, 225-pound sophomore is a devastating scorer and ferocious defender. Whoever wins will likely double-team the Cardinal star.

That leaves players like Peter Hudnot (42 goals) or Mike Derse (46 goals) open and Stanford's fast-breaking attack is designed to maximize their qickness and passing abilities.

Goalie Ellis is third on Stanford's all-time saves list with 700 in his career, and he had 159 this season for a 6.1 saves per game average. He's rounding into the form that made him an All-America and first-team NCAA Final Four player last season.

Stanford is eminently beatable — UCLA scored twice in the final quarter of Sunday's third-place MPSF match to win, 8-6 — and the Stanford dominance from last season does not appear to have carried over.

But the champ is still the champ. If someone other than the Cardinal will stand atop the victory podium Sunday afternoon, it will literally have to be over Azevedo's "dead body," and he's certainly alive and very well.

— Bill Bell

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