2020 Barbara Kalbus Women’s Water Polo Invitational Preview

STANFORD, CA - February 4, 2018: Team at Avery Aquatic Center. The Stanford Cardinal defeated Long Beach State 14-2.
Stanford's John Tanner leads the top-ranked Cardinal into Irvine for the 2020 Barbara Kalbus Invitational. Photo Courtesy: Erin Chang

The UC Irvine Invitational was renamed The Barbara Kalbus Invitational in 2017 to honor Dr. Barbara Kalbus, who was seemingly at every important competition involving college or USA Water Polo events in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Kalbus—inducted in 1993 into the USA Water Polo Hall of Fame—worked tirelessly to anchor the administration of all details great and small: From running the desk at virtually every important tournament over a 30 year span, to serving as President of USA Water Polo, to editing the NCAA playing rules, to specifying each of the desk jobs in writing in the NCAA rule book, she made significant and lasting contributions to the sport.

This year’s invitational promises to be hotly contested and different from previous editions.  It includes the entire top ten from the coaches poll, which makes it the only tournament all season to include such a strong field, and the seeding according to the rankings creates interesting match-ups and answers the question: Who are the best teams in NCAA women’s water polo in late February?

The full tournament field features #1 Stanford, #2 UCLA, #3 Hawai’i, #4 USC, #5 Arizona State, #6 UC Irvine, #7 Cal, #8 UC San Diego, #9 UC Santa Barbara, #10 Michigan, #12 Long Beach State, #13 San Jose State, #15 UC Davis, #16. Loyola Marymount, #21 Pacific and #22 San Diego State.

To keep up with all the action at the 2020 Barbara Kalbus Invitational, click here for the tournament central.

Verica Bakoc, USC

USC’s Verica Bakoc  Photo Courtesy: John McGillen

While the results seem definitive, they don’t always match what happens in late April and mid-May when conference championships and the NCAA title are decided. The 2019 edition of this tournament exemplified this phenomenon when USC topped Stanford to take the Kalbus title, but ultimately fell to the Cardinal in the NCAA Championship game

On Friday, the most intriguing games will be the 2-3 match-ups within each bracket, the standout likely being the #8 vs #9 game between sister UCs—San Diego and Santa Barbara.  The Gauchos opened their season with an upset of UCLA, and met the Tritons at their tournament in La Jolla two weekends ago, with the Tritons taking the contest 11-7.

Since that game, both teams experienced ups and downs, the Gauchos losing to UC Irvine 10-4 and the Tritons giving USC a fight, and then losing to ASU for third place in their tournament.  Their rematch will be played at Corona Del Mar High School on Friday afternoon at 4:15 p.m. (all times are PST).  The winner advances to play the winner of the Stanford/San Diego State game on Saturday morning and will be guaranteed a top 8 finish with all remaining games at UC Irvine. The loser falls into the 9-16 bracket at Corona Del Mar. This season the Tritons joined the Big West—part of their transition this season to Division 1 athletics. These teams are scheduled to meet again in La Jolla on March 28 in a conference match up.

The top-seeded Stanford Cardinal are 9-0 for the fourth consecutive season, but in an Olympic year characterized by parity, they have been tested.  Most recently, the Fresno State Bulldogs trailed 5-4 at halftime and tied the game at 5 in the third quarter, before the Cardinal prevailed 8-6.  And in late January, Stanford found themselves tied at 5 at halftime with UC Irvine and rallied for a 10-9 decision.  John Tanner’s team is 15-0 against the Aztecs (4-6) since 2003.

California (8-4) plays Michigan (5-6) for the third time in less than five weeks at 3:00 p.m. at the Anteater pool.  The seventh-seeded Bears won the first two games 8-7 and 10-8, but both contests were knotted up late in the second half.  Expect another tight game, with a Saturday morning date for the victor with the winner of the UCLA-Pacific first round game hanging in the balance.

UCLA (14-1) carries a 13 game winning streak into the tournament and has already faced seven of the entrants, including a 7-5 win over cross town rival USC in the championship game of the Triton Invitational two weeks ago.

Pacific (2-7) is going in the opposite direction, having lost 7 of 8 games, including a 14-7 loss to the Bruins in January at Michigan’s tournament.  The Tigers have played all but one game against ranked opponents, including four top-ten squads.  Adam Wright‘s Bruins are 11-0 all time against Pacific.

Adam Wright UCLA

UCLA’s Adam Wright, Photo Courtesy: Minette Rubin

Host UC Irvine will face fellow Big West member Long Beach State in their home waters at 4:15 p.m.   The Beach are off to a 7-2 start, including a pair of wins over LMU and a victory over Indiana 10-9 in the 7th place game of the Triton Invite. Meanwhile,  the Anteaters are 9-4, including three one goal losses to Cal, Stanford, and Arizona State.  The winner between them faces the victor between third seed USC and LMU (6-4).  The Trojans are 7-1, and played their home opener against UC Irvine last Saturday and came away with a 9-6 victory.

Arizona State (9-2) will play fellow MPSF member San Jose State in an opening round game.  Last March, the Spartans upended ASU in Tempe, but the Sun Devils got even during the 2019 MPSF tournament.  San Jose State (4-7), has two signature wins so far over California and UC Davis. The victor will face the winner between Hawaii (8-0) and UC Davis (7-8) in another game between Big West teams.  UC Davis has beaten Michigan and San Jose State so far in 2020 and lost 9-8 in overtime to Cal last weekend.  Hawaii is 19-2 all time vs. the Aggies.  For reference, the Rainbow Wahine visited Tempe three weeks ago and beat the Sun Devils 9-7.

Each team will play two games on Saturday with the semifinals set for 2:45 p.m. and 5:15 p.m. at the UC Irvine pool.  The placement games are Sunday, with the Championship match to take place at 1:00 p.m.