2019 CWPA Top 20; After NCAA Win, Stanford Finishes Number One

Stanford Abramson goal 12-8-19
Stanford's Tyler Abramson was integral to the Cardinal's NCAA success. Photo Courtesy: Shumesa Mohsin

The final men’s varsity water polo poll in 2019 from the Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) does not fully represent just how tumultuous this season was. Stanford, the top team in the country at the end after 15 weeks of polling, started off tied for second in the coaches preseason poll. In the intervening 14 weeks, the top-ranked team changed six times, with USC (three) UCLA (one) and UC Santa Barbara (one) holding ascending to #1.

cwpaThrough all this change the Cardinal were a model consistency; they held the top spot for 10 of the 15 weeks, including the last four polls. Congratulations are in order for Stanford on navigating a season of uncertainty (for its rivals) and arriving at the top of the poll for the first time since Tony Azevedo graduated in 2002.

#1 Stanford (21-2; NCAA champions); it feels like a long time since the Cardinal won it all — and it has been. A full 17 years have elapsed since Stanford last won a men’s title; in that time, their women have won six, and have been in 13 NCAA finals. Head Coach John Vargas’ team came out on the right side of the most thrilling game of the season, then coasted to the program’s 11th title in its storied history. Along the way, the Cardinal passes every significant test and — as demonstrated by a gut-check win in the semifinals over the defending champion Trojans — proved they were the best men’s team in varsity polo.

#2 (T) University of Southern California (15-6); by so many metrics — wins, goals scored, losses to Golden Coast Conference (GCC) squads (four)— this was not a typical Trojan campaign. The most obvious indicator is that for the first time since 2005, USC did not advance to an NCAA final. But, given all the obstacles this team surmounted, chief being the absence of second leading scorer Marko Vavic for the entire season, there was a shining moment that revealed Trojan pride at its finest. USC’s incredible rally from four down midway through the final quarter to force overtime is as dramatic a finish as any this season — except for Ben Hallock beating the Trojans with a golden goal for the win in sudden death.

[Defending Champion Trojans on Familiar Ground as They Seek Another NCAA Men’s Water Polo Title]

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Stanford’s John Vargas earned this dunking. Photo Courtesy: Shumesa Mohsin

#2 (T) Pacific (17-6; NCAA runner up); it’s hard to see the Tigers as being equal to the Trojans. One team pushed the eventual national champions to their limit; the other got down by six in the first half and never recovered. This is not to say that 2019 wasn’t a great year for Pacific polo; rather, the circumstances — playing at home for a national championship after drawing the easier semifinal match-up in NCAAs — may not align for a non-Pac-12 team any time soon. And that’s one reason why this was not the greatest season in Tiger polo history.

#4 Pepperdine (25-8); unlike Pacific, their GCC rivals, the Waves have to feel immensely satisfied with how this year finished. Languishing behind the Tigers and UC Santa Barbara for much of the season, Head Coach Terry Schroeder’s squad ripped off an eight-match win streak that include wins over the Gauchos on back-to-back weekends as well as the program’s first NCAA win since a run to a national championship in 1997. A semifinal loss to Pacific should not overshadow what was a breakout season for Pepperdine and the GCC.

#5 UCLA (17-5); there was griping about how the Bruins were on the outside looking in of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013. And it certainly was controversial that Pacific — with two losses in their conference tournament — ended up with the second seed in this year’s bracket while UCLA got bupkis. In reality, Head Coach Adam Wright’s team can only blame themselves for not doing enough to merit an at-large bid. The path to NCAAs was as clear as possible; win the MPSF third place game and go to Stockton. The Trojans did that, beating the Bruins.

#6 UC -Santa Barbara (21-7); another team that has to feel disappointed with where they finished are the Gauchos. A stunning start to the season — a program-best 16 straight wins, including wins over MPSF powers Cal, Stanford and USC — was overshadowed by two late-season losses to Pepperdine. The first was an ugly brawl that caused UCSB to lose starter Leo Yuno. The other was the bitterest pill of all; an overtime loss to the Waves in a GCC semifinal that ended the Gauchos’ season just short of NCAAs.

[UC Santa Barbara’s Danny Roland On the Gaucho’s Great Year — and GCC Rivals Pacific and Pepperdine]

#7 Long Beach State (18-13); even though the 49ers dropped a two-goal decision to Pepperdine in the GCC final, and therefore did not claim a second-straight GCC title, Head Coach Gavin Arroyo has to feel good about his team’s strong finish, which include a 13-12 upset of top-seed Pacific in a GCC semifinal. Austin Stewart collected four scores in that win, and finished the tournament with 10 goals in three games, a fitting end to a spectacular career in Long Beach that saw him collect 208 goals, good for top-three all-time in 49er history.

#8 Cal-Berkeley (14-11); a season that looked lost turned out to almost be a miraculous recover for the Golden Bears. Without a win in conference play prior to the MPSF tournament, Cal rallied with a brilliant win over top-seed USC and then dropped a 17-11 decision to the eventually NCAA champions Stanford. With a young line-up featuring Nikolaos Papanikolaou and Adrian Weinberg, next year should be much better for a proud Cal program.

#9 UC Davis (16-8); another team that has to look back at 2019 with pride are the Aggies. A nine-match win streak gave UCD its third Western Water Polo Association title in the past five years and launched them into the NCAA quarterfinals for the first time in <how long>. All good things must come to an end, and in this case a red-hot Pepperdine team had the last run in a 15-12 match that ended an Aggie season that saw them beat Cal for the first time in more than 40 years. Well done!

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Great times for Bucknell. Photo Courtesy: Bucknell Athletics

#10 Bucknell University (23-9); what was remarkable about the Bison’s run to the NCAA quarterfinals was how confident Head Coach John McBride’s team was against undefeated Harvard and defending national champion USC. A 13-12 win ended the Crimson’s 29-match win streak and advanced Bucknell to an NCAA quarterfinal for the first time In three decades. There the Bison took a 3-2 lead after one period before succumbing by a respectable score of 15-9. Rade Joksimovic, one of the East’s most exciting players in decades, will be gone but he attracted a reservoir of talent that should reward Bison faithful for years to come.

[Logan Schofield: A Polo Legacy Grows at Bucknell]

#11 Harvard (29-1); 2019 was easily the greatest season statistically in program history, but Head Coach Ted Minnis has to feel disappointed that it ended on a sour note with a loss to Bucknell in an NCAA play-in game. And it’s the way the Crimson lost — with All American Austin Sechrest getting stuffed repeatedly in front of the Bison cage. The winning streak should not be forgotten, but the goal in Cambridge has to be to advance to California; Minnis’s superb recruiting has set the bar high for the Crimson.

[Harvard Water Polo’s Austin Sechrest: Maximum Effort Equals Unparalleled Success for Undefeated Crimson]

#12 UC San Diego (20-8); losses to UC Davis were the final blow to the Tritons’ season but the demise of UCSD in Head Coach Denny Harper’s 40th year in La Jolla started with Kacper Langiewicz being declared ineligible just before the start of the season and ended with leading scorer Connor Turnbow-Lindenstadt being left off the roster prior to the WWPA playoffs. With the talent on Harper’s roster — including Skyler Munatones and Jack Turner — Triton fans had to expect more than second place in their conference a year after advancing to a final four.

#13 San Jose State (8-19); the Spartans finished with a win in their last game of the season for only the second time in program history — the first being 2015, when they returned from a three-decade long absence from polo. That. and the fact that SJSU was not last in the GCC since joining the conference in 2016 makes this season one to build on for Head Coach Bruce Watson — especially if sophomore goalie Yahav Fire continues to improve.

#14 UC Irvine (7-16); tough times have come to one of the country’s most storied programs. A season-ending string of 13 losses in the Anteater’s final 14 games means that they finished last in their conference for the first time in Head Coach Marc Hunt’s 15 seasons in Irvine. This is a program that as recently as 2017 was in their conference final, playing for an NCAA tournament berth.

#15 California Baptist (17-15); after a dreadful stretch that saw the Lancers lose 11 of their first 16 games, Head Coach Kevin Rosa’s squad turned it around, finishing third in the WWPA playoffs — CBU’s best-ever conclusion to conference play. For his efforts, Rosa shared 2019 WWPA Co-Coach of the Year honors with UC Davis Head Coach Daniel Leyson.

#16 Loyola Marymount (14-12); it feels like just a little bit more could have been expected from the Lions than fourth place in the WWPA tournament. Wins over UC San Diego, Princeton and Bucknell. as well as one-goal losses to UC Davis, Long Beach State and Santa Clara suggest that — but for a goal here or there — it could have been a different year for Head Coach John Loughran’s squad. The loss to the Broncos had to hurt the most; it came in the opening round of the WWPA tournament, when LMU was a three seed.

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Princeton’s Yurian Quinones was a fantastic addition to the Tiger’s roster. Photo Courtesy: Nicole Maloney

#17 (T) Princeton (16-15); their record this season does not reflect just how much progress the Tigers have made under Head Coach Dusty Litvak. In just his second year in Princeton, the West Coast native has built the team in his — and to some extent his former mentor Adam Wright’s — image. Tough on defense, strong in goal, with exceptional scoring on the perimeter, the Tigers were leading Northeast Water Polo Conference rival Harvard late in their conference final until a couple of late scored gave the Crimson the title. Look for more improvement from Princeton next year.

#17 (T) George Washington (22-9); after back-to-back titles in the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference, the Colonials fell short in their third-straight MAWPC title match. That it was a lopsided loss to Bucknell seemed out of character for the standard now established Washington D.C. by Head Coach Barry King — and a disappointing close to the careers of striker Atakan Destici and 2M man Andrew Mavis — two of the best who have ever donned GW’s colors.

#19 (T) Santa Clara (15-13); a late surge that saw the Broncos win four-straight, including an upset of #3 seed Loyola Marymount in the first round of the WWPA tournament has to be considered a strong finish to their season — as were narrow losses to UC San Diego and Cal Baptist in their final two games of the season. The future looks bright for Head Coach Keith Wilbur, especially if freshmen Dominick Kirk and Chase Zamborelli continue to develop.

#19 (T) Brown (22-12); the Bears season ended on a thrilling note courtesy of senior Armen Deirmenjian’s golden goal in sudden death overtime beat St. Francis Brooklyn for third place at the NWPC Championships. Along with James Thygesen — who had a breakout season in his final year in Providence — Deirmenjian would not be faulted with wistful feelings about a Brown career that saw his squad finish out of NCAAs all four years. A bright note for Bear fans; Cole Atwell earned 2019 NWPC Rookie of the Year honors; the last player to earn that distinction was Henry Fox in 2011. He ended up #2 all-time in the Brown record book with 299 goals.

[Armen Deirmenjian and Brown University: A Bond Forged by Water Polo]

Honorable Mention:

Naval Academy (16-13; third, MAWPC Championship); continued growth in Annapolis under Head Coach Luis Nicolao; great recruiting class sighted on the horizon.

Fordham (24-8; fourth MAWPC Championship); disappointing close to Jake Miller-Tolt’s career; he’s the all-time leading scorer in Ram history (344 goals) but his team lost three of five to finish out of the NCAA picture.

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Whittier College, the first-ever DIII men’s national championship. Photo Courtesy: Tony Leon

Whittier College (21-12); great season for the Poets; Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference regular season and tournament titles was complimented by a win in the first-ever DIII Collegiate Men’s Water Polo National Championship.

[On The Record With Whittier’s David Kasa, Head Coach of the DIII Men’s Polo National Champs]

Concordia (9-18); tremendous improvement by the Eagles from 2018; four more wins including a 3-4 record in conference play including wins over Air Force, Fresno Pacific and Santa Clara.

Air Force (11-17); signs of progress under Head Coach Ryan Brown, now in his second year, include wins over Brown, Whittier and Fresno Pacific and a seventh-place finish in the WWPA Championships.