STANFORD, Calif., December 4. THE defending NCAA national men's water polo champion USC Trojans didn't make it to The Big Dance and presumably will be watching at home on College Sports TV.
The No. 1-ranked team all-season long, UCLA, did make it in but only as an at-large selection.
And the team, Stanford, that has won two of the last four NCAA men's water polo championships so far this new century, will be aiming for a record-tying 11th title overall. Losers to the Trojans in last year's finals here, 9-7, in double-overtime — they are the surprise No. 1 seed and host for this, the 36th NCAA men's Water Polo Championships.
That's the scenario that will unfold this afternoon here as the two semifinal matches get underway at the Cardinal's Avery Aquatic Center. Top-seeded Stanford (22-4) will face the challenge of fourth-seeded Loyola Marymount (20-10) at 3:30 p.m. PST, while in the second semifinal game at 5:00 p.m., second-seeded UCLA (23-3) will play third-seeded Princeton (25-4).
The winners will play in the championship game tomorrow (December 5) at 2:00 p.m. in a match that will be televised live on CSTV. The third-place game will take place at 12:30 p.m.
Since the inception of water polo as an NCAA championship sport in 1969, no team from outside California has ever reached the championship final. Stanford's 10 championships — including back-to-back crowns in 2001-02 — are second all-time to Cal's 11. UCLA has won six times, including consecutive titles in '99-'00 — and ranks third overall in this category.
Loyola, winners of the Western Water Polo Association championship, will be making its third Final Four appearance, having finished third twice before. Princeton, coached by former age-group swimming star and former Stanford All-America Luis Nicolao, an Argentine Olympic swimmer from a "few moons" ago, is making its second appearance. The Tigers also played in the Final Four 12 years ago.
Stanford and UCLA have played three times for the NCAA Championship, with the Cardinal holding a 2-1 edge. Stanford won its inaugural national crown in 1976 when Coach Art Lambert's Cardinal stopped the Bruins, 13-12. They wouldn't meet again until the penultimate year of the last century (1999) when the Bruins — co-coached then by Krikorian and Guy Baker, now U.S. women's national team boss — won, 6-5.
Three years ago, in veteran Stanford coach Dante Dettamanti's final game at the helm of the Cardinal, Stanford "won one for 'the Gipper" by giving him a championship going-away present via an 8-5 victory. That was the last time the Bruins have been in the finals.
Stanford, under new coach John Vargas, stopped Cal the next season at Loyola, then bowed to USC last year here. Vargas was a member of U Cal Irvine's NCAA Championship team 22 years ago. For many years before advancing to The Farm, Vargas was a highly successful prep coach at Corona del Mar High in Southern California, where he won numerous CIF Championships, including a final title in his final season there ('01).
The Cardinal and Bruins have met twice this year with each school winning a pair. Stanford has also beaten Princeton.
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Stanford earned its No. 1 seeding by upsetting the Bruins, 7-6, in the finals of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament a week ago here. The Bruins had been riding an 18-match win streak but were unable to stop the Cardinal's Tony Azevedo, MPSF Player of the Year for a record fourth consecutive time, as he scored five goals and led the home team to the title.
The Cardinal win over the Bruins gives them a three-match win streak as they head into today's match against Loyola-Marymount (20-10). Their longest streak this season is six games.. For the fourth-straight season, all-world driver Tony Azevedo, a two-time United States Olympian, has led the team in scoring with 76 goals — also No. 1 nationally. The 6-6 powerhouse, who looks as if he should be the starting left tackle on the Cardinal football team and whose dad coaches Long Beach State's polo team, is his team's all-time leading scorer (328) and is considered the best player in Stanford history.
He's also likely the best player in collegiate history and among the top poloists worldwide. His 328 career goals are the most ever by any player in college history and he is, in the words of UCLA coach Adam Krikorian,
"simply unstoppable. We put two guys on him, smother him like a rug, and he still finds a way to put the ball in the hole. Amazing."
The Cardinal also have a pair of 50-plus goal scorers in Thomas Hopkins (56 goals) and Peter Varellas (51). In fact, the high-scoring hosts have seven players who've scored at least 10 goals. On defense, Stanford junior goalie Chad Taylor has collected 173 saves and has given up only 4.64 goals per game, No. 1 in the MPSF.
Loyola earned its Final Four berth with a hard-fought, 6-3 WWPA victory over Redlands last month. Endre Rex-Kiss leads the Lion attack with 66 goals and nine players have scored at least ten goals for LMU this year. Defensively, Ian Elliott has 242 saves in goal for Loyola Marymount. .
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UCLA, whose 18-match win streak was its longest in more than two decades, placed six players on the MSF all-tournament teams, including senior attacker Brett Ormsby, senior goalkeeper Joseph Axelrad, junior center defender Michael March, senior attacker Albert Garcia, senior center Ted Peck and senior attacker Josh Hewko.
Receiving first-team honors for UCLA were Axelrad and Ormsby, who both are no strangers to receiving such honors. For Ormsby, it is the fourth time he has been named an all-conference selection. He was a second-team pick as a freshman in 2001 and a first-team member in each of the following three years. Axelrad was an honorable mention selection in 2003 before this year's appointment to the first team.
Heading into the Final Four, Ormsby leads the Bruins with 67 goals and Axelrad has posted an impressive 5.72 goals against average, which currently ranks third on UCLA's all-time single season list. Ormsby's 2.58 goals per game average is second in the conference only to MPSF Player of the Year Azevedo.
Third-team honoree Garcia returned to the Bruins after a year off in 2003 and he has been instrumental in their run towards the NCAA title. As the only remaining member from UCLA's 2000 national championship team, Garcia receives his second all-conference mention after being named an honorable mention selection in 2001. This season, Garcia's 22 goals ranks fourth on the squad and his 23 steals is tops on the team.
Seventeen players on Nicolao's Princeton Tiger roster hail from the Golden State (he may work on the east coast but he KNOWS the talent-pool is on the west coast). Six players are from the Bay Area. John Stover leads the Princeton attack with 69 goals followed by Nicholas Seaver with 45 goals. Eight Tigers have scored 10 or more goals and "we can put the ball in the net, no question about that," Nicolao says. "But UCLA is a step up for us and we're very excited about playing them."
Defensively, Peter Sabbatini has collected 186 saves in goal for the Tigers. Princeton has played two West Coast teams this year, defeating UC Santa Cruz (11-4) but losing at Stanford (15-4).