WESTCHESTER, CA., December 8. WHEN it was all over, when the clock ran down to zero and Stanford was crowned as the 2002 NCAA men's water polo champions — repeating their victory from last season — Al Beaird breathed a sigh of relief.
The chair of the NCAA water polo committee, Beaird had taken a not inconsiderable amount of heat for selecting Stanford over Pepperdine as one of the Final Four teams, even though the Cardinal lost in the semi-finals of last weekend's MPSF tourney to eventual champ Cal and then lost to UCLA in the third-place game.
"It all workd out perfectly and the best team won," he smiled.
Indeed, Stanford (24-5), No. 1-ranked nationally going into the tournament and top-seeded here, won its 10th NCAA polo crown over Cal, 7-6, on the strength of senior Peter Hudnot's pair of first-quarter goals and Final Four MPV Tony Azevedo's "hat trick" plus one.
Stanford thus defeats its Bay Area rival for the third time in five matches this season and all have been decided be a mere goal. Overall, Stanford has a 52-50-1 lead in the series.
Meanwhile, Queens College surprised UCSD in the consolation match, winning 6-5 in overtime to take third place.
Cal was led by junior Will Quist's hat trick, but it was not enough to overcome Azevedo & Co.
The match was played on a warm and gloriously sun-kissed afternoon at Loyola-Marymount University's Burns Recreation and Aquatic Center pool — before an overflow crowd of some 2600 fans — who seemed to be evenly split in their support of each team.
Stanford reached the finals with a 10-5 semifinal win over Queens College of New York yesterday while Cal was a 14-6 semi victor over U Cal San Diego.
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As was the case in the teams' previous four meetings this season, the outcome was decided by a single goal.
However, the final score is somewhat deceiving as Stanford was in control until late in the final quarter, holding a 7-4 advantage. Then Cal staged a stirring comeback, reminiscent of the Lakers' comeback against Dallas Friday night at Staples, to pull within the final 7-6 margin with 1:33 remainig.
The Cardinal played tough defense, however, and with goalie Nick Ellis contributing a key save and then a steal, Stanford had won its 10th NCAA Championship — one less than Cal's record 11.
These two teams have now played for the NCAA title a record seven time with Stanford holding a 4-3 advantage.
"I told our guys to forget about what happened last week, just focus on today's game and that's what they did. Peter [Hudnot] was tremendous, Tony was Tony, it was just a great team victory all around. Nick did a marvelous job in the cage, our true freshman, Thomas Hopkins, contributed a key goal…I'm just thrilled beyond words," said Stanford coach John Vargas, who won the title in his rookie season at The Farm — the only first-year coach in the 34-year history of the tournament to be victorious in his initial appearance.
(For that matter, Cal coach Kirk Everist, also in his first year at the Bears' helm, is the only rookie coach to lose the championship.)
"[Tony] is a winner," continued a dripping-wet Vargas, who was given the traditional "dunking" after the Cardinal victory. "He's won at every level and he's going to continue winning at every level. He's a great teammate and he does a wonderful job."
(Azevedo's selection as Final Four MVP was his second-consecutive such award. He won last season as a freshman when Stanford defeated UCLA, 8-5, for the championship at its home Avery Aquatic Center.)
"I don't think any senior could ask for more," commented Hudnut. "A bunch of us were talking about how great it would be [to win] before the game, and everyone came out ready to play today. Everyone was on the same page, and it does not get greater than this."
"What really sparked me," said Azevedo, "was Peter scoring the first two goals. Playing with Peter and Jeff Nesmith all my life, I wanted nothing more than to send these guys out with a win."
"We're disappointed with the loss," said Cal's Everist, who finished his first season with a 20-7 record. "We had a goal at the beginning of the year and that was to win a national championship. I tried to set the tone early on of never quitting and this team showed that today. We had a chance to tie it up with a minute and a half left to play and this team kept on fighting. I'm very, very proud of this team."
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Hudnot scored his first goal just 59 seconds into the match, then added No. 2 at the 5:17 mark, and Stanford was quickly out in front by a 2-zip margin. The Golden Bears tacked on one in the first quarter to cut the margin to one but Stanford appeared to control the tempo.
In the second period, Azevedo got untracked from the defensive efforts of Cal All-America Attlia Bahnidy and scored his hat trick. Card rookie Hopkins added one while Cal notched three to bring the halftime score to 6-4 in favor of the Cardinal.
On Azevedo's third goal of the quarter, he took a high pass from Jeff Nesmeth on the left side about a meter or so out and just blasted the pelota into the net, registering at least an 11 on the Richter Scale!
Both teams were unable to convert any shots during the third quarter as Ellis and Golden Bear goalie Russell Bernstein turned away numerous attempts, so the Golden Bears started the final seven minutes trailing by the same two goals they were down by at halftime.
With 4:42 left in the third, Azevedo scored his 95th goal of the season, extending Stanford's lead to three. But the Bears were far from dead and fought back tenaciously. Cal scored on a man-up goal and then on a quick foul shot to bring them within one with 1:46 to go.
Following Stanford's final time out, the Cardinal tightened its defense and closed out the game to take the 7-6 win and claim its first NCAA Championship under first-year coach Vargas.
Thus Vargas has a four-championship winning streak going into next season: three CIF Southern Section Division II boys' polo titles from his stay at Corona del Mar High and today's NCAA title.
Azevedo was one of three Cardinal players selected to the first-team All-Tournament squad. Joining him were Hudnut and goalie Ellis, Cal's Banhidy, Andrew Stoddard of Cal, Chris Lathrop of Cal and Michel Vieira of Queens.
The second team selections were Mike Derse (Stanford), Jeff Nesmith (Stanford), Will Quist (Cal), Greg Panawek (Cal), Matt Ellis (UCSD), Jonathan Hopkins (UCSD), John Prokhin (Queens) and Russell Bernstein (Cal).
— Bill Bell
Team 1 2 3 4 Total
Stanford 2 4 0 1 7
California 1 3 0 2 6
Stanford scoring: Azevedo 4, Hudnut 2, Hopkins 1
California scoring: Quist 3, Stoaddard 1, Panawek 1, Banhidy 1.
Ellis (Stan) 7
Bernstein (Cal) 6.
In the battle for third place, senior Caner Erdogru of Queens College scored on a penalty shot in overtime to lift the Knights to a 6-5 win over UCSD in the consolation match.
UC San Diego (19-13) erased a two-goal deficit in the fourth quarter to force overtime — the first OT game in the NCAA Championship since the 1998 tournament, when both the consolation and championship games went into extra frames.
Scoring Team 1 2 3 4 OT 1/2 — Total
UC San Diego 0 2 0 2 1/0 — 5
Queens College 1 1 2 0 2/0 — 6