2018 NCAAs: Season-Ending Matches Decisive for Men’s Varsity Water Polo Conference Seeding

Goalie Nic Porter—here stuffing Cal's Johnny Hooper—is key to USC's hopes for another MPSF title in 2018. Photo Courtesy: Cathryn Hayne

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

As the 2018 men’s varsity water polo regular season draws to a close, pivotal matches last week as well this will decide seeding for conference tournament play, scheduled to take place November 16-18. Eight 2018 NCAA Men’s Tournament bids—six automatic qualifiers determined by conference winners as well as two at-large bids—will be decided by Monday, November 19 in advance of play-in matches for the East and the West on Saturday, November 24 at sites to be determined.

The national championship tournament will take place November 30 through December 2 at Stanford’s Avery Aquatic Center.

Last Saturday’s biggest matches involved Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) teams and—based upon the CWPA’s weekly men’s varsity poll—the nation’s top four teams. #2 UCLA (20-2; 1-1 MPSF) got a desperately needed 10-8 win over #3 Stanford (17-2; 1-1 MPSF) at the Spieker Aquatic Center in Westwood. With the win Adam Wright’s squad avoided going 0-2 in conference play prior to a regular season-ending match next Saturday against #1 USC at Uytengsu Aquatics Center. Leading the way for UCLA was sophomore Nicolas Saveljic (38 goals), who scored a career-high-tying four goals. Stanford got down 6-2 at the half and couldn’t recover; they will look to regroup against arch-rival Cal (16-4; 1-1 MPSF) next weekend when they travel across the San Francisco Bay to face the #4 Golden Bears in the annual Big Splash.

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UCLA and Cal have spent much of the season looking up at USC and Stanford. Photo Courtesy: Cathryn Hayne

After a 13-7 loss on Saturday to the Trojans (27-1; 1-1 MPSF) in Los Angeles, Cal hopes a return home will provide a boost; the four top MPSF teams are tied with 1-1 conference records and Cal is currently looking like the odd man out. Seeding for the 2018 MPSF Tournament—to be held at USC—will be determined by Saturday’s outcomes of UCLA vs. USC and Cal vs. Stanford.

Dustin Litvak is an outsider observer who has a privileged view of the incredibly tight MPSF race. Before taking the reins last June of Princeton’s men’s water program he was an assistant coach under Wright from 2013-2018.

“Last year whomever was fourth in the MPSF tournament was out,” Litvak said after his Tigers had tamed the Terriers of St. Francis Brooklyn Sunday in Princeton. “It’s going to come down to the same thing again. So I won’t be surprised if that conference comes down to goalie play, just because of how much talent is equal in the field.”

The one-time Bruin, who spent his formative years in Socal as a student at Pepperdine and as head coach at Agoura High School, added: “I would never bet against UCLA or USC; history’s proven that.”

One key consideration; in 2017 USC beat UCLA in the MPSF tournament, which in years past would likely have given the Trojans the top seed in the NCAA Men’s Tournament bracket. But the Bruins got top billing based upon a better overall record against MPSF opponents. Unlike USC, the Bruins avoided a tougher opponent in the semifinals, part of why they and not the Trojans were national champions.

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USC’s fantastic freshman Hannes Daube. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Moving on to other conferences, the Golden Coast Conference has three teams tied at the top of the conference standings—#5 UC Santa Barbara (18-8; 3-1 GCC); #8 Pepperdine (15-10 (3-1 GCC) and #7 Pacific (10-10; 3-1 GCC)—with #6 Long Beach State (9-11; 2-2 GCC) hoping to slip in to third or fourth. Pacific, which will face #19 San Jose State (6-16; 0-4 GCC) on Saturday, appears to have the easiest path to the top. A win and the Tigers will again be top seed when the teams assemble for the GCC tournament two weeks from now at Pepperdine’s Raleigh Runnels Memorial Pool. If they lose, the winner of the Pepperdine vs. UCSB game this Saturday in Malibu will claim the top spot.

Another important note: Will home pool advantage be decisive as Head Coach Terry Schroeder looks to get back to the NCAAs for the first time since 2016?

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Terry Schroeder. Photo Courtesy: USA Water Polo

Seeding for the Western Water Polo Association was decided in one fell swoop last Saturday, as #9 UC San Diego (16-5; 6-1 WWPA) stormed into UC Davis’ home pool and beat the #10 Aggies 10-8 behind four goals by Connor Turnbow-Lindenstadt.

The Tritons now have almost two weeks to recharge—they’ll play a couple of exhibition matches next week—before they travel to Fresno Pacific (5-18; 0-7 WWPA) to take on the host Sunbirds in the first round of the WWPA Tournament. UC Davis (15-7; 6-1 WWPA) has one regular season match remaining—against Pacific next Sunday—before they face Concordia (5-17; 1-6 WWPA), the seventh-seeded team in the WWPA tournament bracket. Looming in the semifinals, if they advance, are the Lancers of #14 Cal Baptist (21-10; 5-2 WWPA), who this season own a win over UC San Diego and a narrow loss to UC Davis.

After knocking off Wittier 15-10 last Saturday, Pomona-Pitzer (20-8; 12-0 SCIAC) has gone an impressive 33-1 in Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) regular season play the last three years. Wins this Wednesday against Caltech (6-17; 1-11 SCIAC) and Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (15-9; 10-3 SCIAC) will wrap up an undefeated campaign, the Sagehens second in three years. Head Coach Alex Rodriguez’s squad has already clinched they’re the top seed in the SCIAC’s four-team tournament that will include Claremont, Whitter (13-13; 8-4 SCIAC) and likely Redlands (14-14; 8-5 SCIAC with a match next Saturday against Whittier). Pomona-Pitzer will be a strong favorite for a third-straight SCIAC title in 2018.

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Harvard sharpshooter Dennis Blyashov. Photo Courtesy: Harvard Athletics

Moving East, #12 Harvard (21-7; 9-1 NEWPC) wrapped up the 2018 Northeast Water Polo Conference regular season title, sweeping #18 Brown (17-12; 6-4 NEWPC) and MIT (9-12; 2-8 NEWPC) last weekend. The Crimson will be looking for a three-peat in NCAA berths; that has never happened in the era following the Collegiate Water Polo Association’s split three years ago; Harvard has won every NEWPC title so far. One has to go back to 2006-08—when Navy accomplished the feat—for last time an Eastern team went to three straight NCAA tournaments.

Number two seed St. Francis (8-14; 7-3 NEWPC) ended their regular season on a sour note with a 10-8 loss to #17 Princeton, but there is a silver lining; the Terriers will face the winner of the Princeton vs. Iona (6-24; 0-10) match on November 16, while Harvard will play the winner of a Brown vs. MIT match, also on the 16th, in host Brown’s pool. The Bears own the only win against Harvard this season by a NEWPC team and have proved to be a tough out all season, including one-goal losses to the Terriers and the Crimson and a one-goal win over Princeton.

Regular season play—as well as seeding—will wrap up for the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference-East the NEWPC’s companion conference, this weekend. Top honors for the 2018 MAWPC tournament have been claimed by #15 Bucknell (20-6; 11-1), which claimed top regular season honors for the third-straight year and—powered by Radé Joksimovic, who in three seasons in Lewisburg has tallied an incredible 376 goals, putting him second to Scott Schulte’s all-time record of 586—has gone 30-2 since the conference’s inception in 2016.

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Radé Joksimovic, an all-time Bison great. Photo Courtesy: Bucknell Athletics

The Bison were the top seed last year but were surprised in the semifinals by an upstart Wagner squad; this year the Seahawks (16-13; 8-4) sit third in their conference, behind George Washington (17-6; 7-3); Chris Radmonovich’s squad can avoid another semifinal match-up against Bucknell if GW falters this coming weekend; the Seahawks own the tie-breaker over the Colonials, who have matches against Johns Hopkins and Navy this Saturday. Fordham (14-14; 6-6 MAWPC) will finish fourth if Navy (13-11; 5-5 MAWPC), which greatly improved from a 1-9 conference record in 2017, splits with Johns Hopkins (7-15; 2-8) and George Washington. The Rams may be a sleeper pick for this year’s MAWPC tournament; they’re hosting for the first time ever.

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Author: Michael Randazzo

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Michael Randazzo is a freelance contributor at Swimming World focusing on water polo. He covers polo all over the United States for SW and other publications, including the Collegiate Water Polo Association, Skip Shot, The New York Times, Total Water Polo, Water Polo Planet and others. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children and roots for St. Francis Brooklyn polo.

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