#1 USC, #3 UCLA, #4 Pacific Fall in Day Two of NCAA Men’s Water Polo Conference Play

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Cal goalie Adrian Weinberg came up big against USC to lead his team into the MPSF Final. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

What a day for underdogs in NCAA men’s varsity water polo. Three of the nation’s top four teams lost on the second day of conference post-season play, entirely scrambling the picture for the upcoming NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournament. One of Saturday’s biggest upsets involved defending champs USC, who may not qualify for the national championship for the first time in almost two decades.

The Trojans — currently tied with Stanford for #1 in the country — fell 12-9 to Cal at Spieker Aquatics Center in Berkeley. This unexpected defeat to a Golden Bears team they had already beaten twice this season not only shoves USC into the losers bracket of the 2019 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) tournament. It was the first of a series of upsets or unexpectedly tight semifinal matches that characterized Saturday’s action.

December 1, 2018; , Palo Alto, CA, USA; Collegiate Men's Water Polo:NCAA Semi Finals: USC vs UCLA; USC Driver Zach D'Sa scores Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne

Will USC truly be out of NCAAs? Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

UCLA, number three in the most recent Collegiate Water Polo Association Top 20 poll, lost 16-15 in overtime to Stanford, as the vaunted Bruin defense faltered for the second time in two weekends. On Sunday UCLA will face USC in the MPSF third place match, with the possibility that whichever team loses will not qualify for NCAAs. With the win, Stanford is assured of getting back to the national championship for the second straight year, either through winning the MPSF title outright or as an at-large team. Cal can only get there by winning on Sunday; if they do qualify for NCAAs it will be a stunning reversal in a season that has has not played out in expected fashion.

[Notes from a Memorable Start to the 2019 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Season]

A perhaps even bigger upset than Cal-USC occurred down the coast, where top-seed Pacific fell to #4 Long Beach State 13-12 in Malibu. The loss to the 49ers in the Golden Coast Conference semifinals is a huge blow to the nation’s fourth-ranked team; the Tigers have previously compiled an exceptional resume this season, including two wins against USC. When the NCAA selections committee looks to assign at-large bids, those two wins may be the difference between Pacific or USC advancing to the national championship.

If the Trojans are not awarded an at-large berth, it will end one of the more remarkable streaks in American intercollegiate polo history. Southern Cal has played in the past 14 NCAA title matches, winning eight of them.

To even be considered for an at-large bid —which would be the first time in NCAA history that a non-Pac-12 team has advance to the tournament without winning their conference title — the Tigers must beat a star-crossed UC Santa Barbara in the GCC’s third-place match. The Gauchos lost in overtime Saturday to Pepperdine by a score of 11-10; it was the Waves second straight win over UCSB after three losses earlier this season. Noteworthy in this match is that there was none of the extracurricular activity that took place last weekend, also in the Raleigh Runnels Memorial Pool, when six players were ejected after a brawl that erupted at the end of the third period.

UCSB vs Stanford

Danny Roland has stood tall all season in the UCSB cage. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

The Waves turned out to lose the ejection battle from that match, as third-leading scorer Marko Asic was banned two games as result of his participation in the melee, but it appears that they may win the most important war, which is claiming the GCC title and with it an NCAA berth. UCSB was also short-handed as a result of last week’s fight; four Gauchos — most noteworthy being starter Leo Yuno — were excluded from the team’s most pivotal match. Certainly, UCSB could have used all of them in a tight contest that was tied at seven at the end of regulation when Pepperdine’s Sean Thomas beat Gaucho goalie Danny Roland with less than two minutes remaining in the match to force the extra sessions. A goal by Sean Ferrari in the first OT period — one of three scored by the Waves, proved to be the difference in what began as a magical season for UCSB has almost certainly ended.

[UC Santa Barbara Aims to Replicate Gauchos’ 1979 NCAA Championship Run]

Long Beach State, the defending GCC champions, will now face Pepperdine with a chance to get back to NCAAs. It took three decades for the 49ers to get there in 2018; the Waves went as recently as 2016 — the GCC’s first year as a men’s conference — and hold a special place in NCAA tournament lore. They are the last non-Pac-12 team to win a national championship, having accomplished the feat in 1997. If they do get there, they’ll do it without Asic and Michael Dakis; both are ineligible for the GCC final due to their participation in last Saturday’s brawl.

At the Western Water Polo Association tournament in Riverside, California, top seeds UC Davis and UC San Diego advance to their fifth-straight WWPA final meeting. The Aggies of UCD had the easier time of it, cruising to a 14-9 victory over host Cal Baptist. On the other side of the bracket, UCSD struggled mightily against upset-minded Santa Clara, before a goal by Skyler Munatones with 22 seconds remaining allowed the Tritons to escape with a 7-6 win. The Aggies are and Tritons have split the past four title tilts; as in years past, the winner will go to the NCAA tournament.

On the other side of the country, a series of tight matches at the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference did not result in any upsets — but there were likely a lot of grey hairs produced due to all the tensions. In a pitched battle that was only resolved late in the game, host Bucknell held of a determined Naval Academy, with Andu Vlasceanu and Logan Schofield rallying their team from a fourth-quarter deficit to advance to a second-straight MAWPC final. Navy’s Isaac Salinas was brilliant in defeat, scoring five goals to up his two-tournament total to nine. On the bracket’s other side, #3 George Washington and #2 Fordham battled through a taught first-half that saw the Colonials emerge with a 4-3 lead. The game turned in the third period, as GW, two-time defending MAWPC champions, were able to extend their lead to three, and ultimately hold off the Rams for a 9-5 win.

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Princeton and its coach, Dusty Litvak, are all that stand between Harvard and a NWPC title. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

Matt Taylor (15 saves) was brilliant in the Colonial cage as his team advances to a rematch against the Bison for the MAWPC championship. Last season’s final was noteworthy for an amazing goal at the end of regulation by GW’s Atakan Destici which forced overtime and ultimately led to a 12-11 overtime win.

[In Thrilling Finish to Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Final, George Washington Tops Bucknell in OT]

in the Northeast Water Polo Conference, Harvard continued one of the best seasons in Eastern polo history, demolishing St. Francis Brooklyn by a score of 15-9. The Crimson —who at one point led the Terriers by nine goals —are 28-0 heading into their fourth-straight NWPC final. A win on Sunday would give Harvard a perfect record as well an NCAA berth; no other team from the East has accomplished this dual feat.

[Twenty-seven and 0? Wow! But Harvard Men’s Water Polo Has More to Prove]

In addition to history, Princeton stands in the way of Harvard Head Coach Ted Minnis’ squad. The Tigers were even with Brown for a quarter before freshman sensation Joan Coloma (four goals, three assists) led an explosion that saw his team outscore the Bears 10-4 over the middle two periods on their way to a 16-10 win and a finals rematch with the Crimson for the third-straight season. In last year’s final, Princeton surprised a Harvard squad that had similarly dominated its Eastern rivals. Minnis will not allow this to happen again, but the Tigers have the talent and tenacity to make the Crimson earn their dual success.

Brown, which coming into the match was playing the best ball of the season, will now have to settle for a third-place match against St. Francis, which has unraveled since leading scorer Ivan Stefanovic left the team three weeks ago. The Terriers have now lost five of seven matches, and were called for two red cards Saturday in losing to the Crimson for the seventh-straight time.

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