2018 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournament Round-Up: All Berths Decided by Sunday

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Will Stanford and USC face each other in the MPSF Final? Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

With conference tournament play underway this weekend, by Sunday night all eight berths in the 2018 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournament will be finalized; six automatic berths for conference winners and two at-large bids claimed by whichever of the Big Four—Cal, Stanford, UCLA or USC—is not the odd man out in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) tournament. Unlike in years past, where a blind man might reasonably pick winners, conference favorites are in short supply.

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The MPSF tournament begins Friday at USC’s Uytengsu Aquatics Center and Stanford (18-2; 2-1 MPSF)—#3 in this week’s Collegiate Water Polo Association—is the tournament’s top seed. After a 12-11 OT win over arch-rival Cal in last week’s annual Big Splash match-up, the Cardinal will draw UCLA (20-3; 1-2 MPSF) in a Saturday semifinal. This is a dangerous pairing for Stanford; the Bruins tagged the Cardinal with a 10-8 loss two weeks ago in LA. The Golden Bears (16-5; 1-2 MPSF) will meet the host Trojans (29-1; 2-1 MPSF) in the other semifinal; last week #1 USC extended an 11-match win streak at the Bruins’ expense.

[Stanford beats USC in 1st MPSF match of 2018]

Cal has the most to lose this weekend; as the nation’s 4th-ranked team, they likely need to find a path to the MPSF title game to be in consideration for one of the NCAA at-large berths. UCLA is the other team looking up in the MPSF hierarchy but #2 ranked UCLA can rely on junior Alex Wolf, the most experienced goalie in the conference.

The MPSF fifth-sixth place game is noteworthy, as newcomer Austin College (1-12) will almost certainly face Penn State Behrend (3-17) twice over the weekend. The Kangaroos and the Nittany Lions may be the MPSF’s ugly ducklings but they are fortunate to face each other one of the country’s best polo venues. Both teams do have a tough road to hoe in LA; the winner of Friday’s Austin vs. Penn St. match will face UCLA; the loser draws Cal.

[Austin gets first-ever NCAA varsity water polo win over Monmouth]

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Next up is the Golden Coast Conference tournament, which has been disrupted by the devastating wildfires sweeping through California. Pepperdine was slated to host this year’s championship but, as a result of the unimaginable carnage in the area around Malibu, the tournament has been relocated to Long Beach State. Not only does this negatively impact the Waves’ chances of capturing their second GCC title in three years, the fires prevented Terry Schroeder’s team from playing its final regular season match against #5 UC Santa Barbara (18-8; 3-1 GCC). Both the Gauchos and the Waves finished behind #9 Pacific (11-11; 4-1 GCC) but only #7 Pepperdine (15-10; 3-1 GCC) may get a crack at the Tigers for the top spot. Despite being the nation’s fifth-ranked team, UC Santa Barbara chose not to compete in the 2018 tourney and will finish the year an impressive 8-1 against GCC competition.

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USBC’s Boris Jovanovic is out of postseason play. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

The new venue greatly enhances the chances of the hosts, #6 49ers (11-11; 3-2 GCC) who have won four straight matches and will face Pepperdine—perhaps a bit rusty now after a two-week layoff—in one semifinal. Top seed Pacific will face either#14 UC Irvine (8-15; 1-4 GCC) or San Jose State (6-17; 0-5 GCC) in the other semi.

wwpa-logo-apr-17The Western Water Polo Association also promises an exciting and perhaps unpredictable finish to its season, with three days and eight teams all being hosted by Fresno Pacific. On Friday the Sunbirds (5-18; 0-7 WWPA) draw the top-seeded #10 UC San Diego (16-5; 6-1 WWPA). Two weeks ago the Tritons beat #8 UC Davis (16-7; 6-1 WWPA) in the Aggies’ home pool to take top WWPA regular season honors. But Dan Leyson’s team hasn’t stood still; on Sunday UC Davis upset Pacific to close out the regular season; will this momentum carry the Aggies through to a rematch with the Tritons on Sunday?

SCIAC

Moving East—of Los Angeles, that is—the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference has had one dominant team the past three years; #20 Pomona-Pitzer (22-8; 14-0 SCIAC) just completed its second undefeated SCIAC season in the past three years and are their conference tourney’s top seed. Equally impressive, since 2016 the Sagehens have gone 35-1 in conference play. They’ll host Cal Lutheran (16-11; 8-6 SCIAC) on Friday in one semifinal; the Poets of Whittier (15-13; 10-4 SCIAC) will entertain Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (15-10; 10-4 SCIAC) in Friday’s other semifinal. The winners will play on Sunday for the SCIAC’s automatic NCAA berth.

[Five Questions for David Kasa, Head Coach for Whittier Water Polo]

Starting Saturday in Providence, #12 Harvard will attempt a rare feat in Eastern polo; a three-peat for NCAA berths. To get to the title match of the Northeastern Water Polo Conference, the top-seeded Crimson (21-7; 9-1 NEWPC) will likely have to get past host #16 Brown (17-12; 6-4), who own the only NEWPC win over Ted Minnis’ squad this season. The other side of the semifinal bracket is likely to be a rematch from two weeks ago, with St. Francis Brooklyn (8-14; 7-3 NEWPC) playing #18 Princeton (16-10; 6-4 NEWPC). The Bears and Tigers will need to get by MIT (9-12; 2-8 NEWPC) and Iona (6-25; 0-10) respectively on Friday to make their semifinal date.

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Rounding out the NCAA-eligible conferences is the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference-East, which will be held this year at Fordham in New York City. Top-seed Bucknell (20-6; 11-1 MAWPC) has had a spectacular three-year run in conference play, going an outstanding 30-2 against MAWPC. The Bison—#15 in the CWPA poll—face La Salle (2-20) on Friday before an anticipated semifinal match-up on Saturday against the winner of host Fordham (15-14; 6-6 MEWPC) and Navy (14-12; 6-6 MAWPC), whose new helmsman, Luis Nicolao, just won 2018 MAWPC Coach of the Year.

[Five Questions for Luis Nicolao, Navy Men’s Water Polo Coach]

The last time Head Coach John McBride’s team lost to either of those teams was 2015 (Navy) and 2014 (Fordham), but after being upset last year by Wagner in the MAWPC semifinals, it will be shocking if the Bison and Radé Joksimovic, their superb attacker, aren’t playing for an NCAA berth on Sunday.

On the other side of the bracket, second-seeded George Washington (19-6; 9-3 MAWPC) will face McKendree (14-11; 6-2 MAWPC-West), the representative from the western bracket of the conference. Barring any surprises, the Colonials will likely face Wagner (16-13; 8-4 MAWPC), who must get past Johns Hopkins (7-17; 2-10 MAWPC) in Friday’s other opening-round match.