After Hectic Weekend, NCAA Men’s Water Polo Post-Season Picture Comes into Focus

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Newcomer Djordje Stanic (with ball) has helped Pacific capture the GCC regular season crown for third straight year. Photo Courtesy: Shumesa Mohsin

Following a weekend of extensive action, playoff implication for the six conference that send teams to the NCAA men’s water polo tournament are close to being finalized. Regular season winners are led by Harvard, who beat all comers in the Northeast Water Polo Conference—as well everyone else—and is the tournament’s top seed. UC Davis beat UC San Diego to take the #1 seed for the Western Water Polo Association, while Pacific, with one conference game to play, has clinched the Golden Coast Conference’s top spot.

2019-NCAA

Moving closer to completion is Whittier, which has a half-game lead in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) with two to play. Second-place Claremont-Mudd-Scrips has an outside chance to catapult to the top if the Poets stumble in one their last two matches. In the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference (MAWPC), Bucknell has a half-game advantage over George Washington and Fordham but must travel to the Bronx to face the Rams in a match that could decide all three teams’ fate.

The Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) — which two weeks ago appeared to be a two-team race — has been turned upside down due to a late charge by USC. The Trojans have clinched the top spot in the upcoming MPSF tournament by beating Stanford and UCLA on consecutive weeks.

Harvard completes a perfect regular season

The Crimson’s 10-0 record clinched the second-straight NWPC regular season title, and completed the greatest season—so far—in program history. As the tournament’s number one seed for the second straight year, Head Coach Ted Minnis is likely to remind his players about last year, when the favored Crimson were upset in the NWPC final by second-seeded Princeton.

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Dennis Blyashov is one of many reasons why Harvard is undefeated. Photo Courtesy: Gil Talbot

The post-season bracket is mostly the same in 2019; the Tigers (15-14; 7-3 NWPC) are the #2 seed in the conference and like the Crimson (27-0) will get a bye into the second round. Third seeded Brown (20-11; 6-4 NWPC) will face #6 Iona (6-21; 0-10 NWPC) on November 22 in Cambridge, while St. Francis Brooklyn (18-11; 5-5 NWPC) — losers of three of their last four conference matches — will face MIT (10-13; 2-8 NWPC), host of this year’s tournament. One wrinkle; the Engineers have already qualified for the first-ever DIII Collegiate Championship. If Head Coach Austin Ringheim’s team somehow finds it way to the NWPC title, they would have the option to accept their conference’s NCAA bid.

[Ringheim and Koetters of MIT Talk Engineer Water Polo]

In the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference-East last weekend, George Washington (20-8; 9-3 MAWPC) beat conference leader Bucknell (18-8; 9-2 MAWPC-East) to pull within a half-game of the top. The problem for the Colonials, two-time defending MAWPC champs, is that they’ve completed their regular season schedule. The Bison travel to New York City for their final game next Saturday against Fordham (21-5; 8-2 MAWPC). The Rams are also a two-loss team in conference play; if Fordham wins out — they also have a MAWPC match against La Salle (6-19; 1-10 MAWPC) — they will claim a conference regular season championship for the first time in a decade, when the Rams were members of the now disbanded CWPA Northern Division.

The Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference-West crowned a champion; in his second year as head coach for Gannon, Shane Unger led the Knights (17-2; 6-0 MAWPC-West) to a 15-14 overtime win against McKendree (12-12; 5-1 MAWPC-West) in the MAWPC-West title match. By virtue of this win, Unger’s team will now advance to the MAWPC tournament, to be held from November 22-24 at Bucknell’s Kinney Natatorium. This win comes a years after a Bearcat win that ended the last undefeated season attempt in the East, when McKendree knocked off Gannon in the 2018 MAWPC-West title match, ending a 20-match Golden Knight winning streak. The challenge for Unger and his DIII program; pick up a win against either La Salle or Hopkins in the tournament.

[Five Questions for Shane Unger, New Gannon Men’s and Women’s Water Polo Coach]

The Western Water Polo Association has been dominated for the past six years by two teams: UC Davis and UC San Diego. The Tritons of UCSD (18-7; 6-1 WWPA) are reigning champions; the Aggies of UCD (13-7; 7-0 WWPA) won in 2016 and 2017. The previous three year, the winner of the last regular season match between the two has gone on to win the tournament. If that proves true again this year, the Aggies will win this year’s WWPA title and the conference’s NCAA bid. Head Coach Dan Leyson’s team traveled to La Jolla and captured a 9-7 win and top seeding in this year’s tournament. But, Aggie fans should not get too comfortable; the Tritons won the other two meetings this season between these teams and Loyola Marymount (13-10; 5-2 WWPA) suffered just two WWPA losses to claim the number three seed in the conference tournament, which will be held November 22 – 24 at Cal Baptists.

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UC Davis’ Leyson has that winning feeling! Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Sage Hens in a dogfight

The SCIAC playoff picture is not as clear as in year’s past. Picking Pomona-Pitzer was usually the safe choice; the Sage Hens captured the last three titles and appeared to have a good shot at a fourth-title in four years. Not so in 2019. Last Saturday Whittier (15-12; 11-1 SCIAC) beat Pomona-Pitzer (19-10; 9-3 SCIAC) for the second time this season to take a half-game lead in the conference standings with two games to play. Trailing just behind the 11-1 Poets are the Stags of Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (15-9; 10-2 SCIAC), who dealt Whitter a 10-9 loss last week. The Sage Hens have a shot at moving into the second spot in the SCIAC rankings if they can tag CMS with a loss this Wednesday.

No matter who wins, three of four spots in the SCIAC tournament are decided: Whittier, CMS and Pomona-Pitzer will all advance. Fighting for the fourth and final spot are Chapman (11-15; 7-5 SCIAC) and Cal Lutheran (14-12; 7-6 SCIAC). The Regals have one game left, against a Pomoma-Pitzer squad that has a lot to play for. The last time Cal Lutheran won a match-up with PP? 2015. Chapman has a tough match-up against Whittier and a game against Redlands (13-14; 6-6 SCIAC)—and holds the tie-breaker (cumulative goals against) between the two teams.

[On Deck With Djordje Stanic of Pacific Men’s Water Polo]

The Golden Coast Conference is mostly finished play, and the Tigers of Pacific are a perfect 4-0 with one conference game left against San Jose State. Given wins over Pepperdine and UC Santa Barbara, the Tigers (15-3; 4-0 GCC) have already clinched the top spot in the GCC tournament, which will be held November 22 – 24 in Malibu. The two second place teams — the Waves (21-7; 3-1 GCC) and the Gauchos (19-5; 3-1 GCC) — will meet next Saturday at Runnels Memorial Pool. UCSB has already beaten the Waves three times this season; might be challenging to beat a team four times in a season, especially if they’re playing at home.

September 28, 2019; Spieker Aquatics Complex, Los Angeles, CA, USA; MWP: USC Trojans vs University of the Pacific Tigers; Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne

Remember this guy? Hannes Daube is powering the Trojans. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

The Big Four and the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) have gone through a tremendous upheaval the past two weeks. USC — which at one point looked to be out of the running for an NCAA spot — has thrust themselves squarely into the championship picture, beating the nation’s top team on consecutive Saturdays. The Trojans are now at the top of the conference with one more MPSF match —against Cal in Berkeley. Given that this is a down year for the Golden Bears (12-9; 0-2 MPSF), the Trojans (12-4; 2-0 MPSF) will be favored to sweep their three Pac-12 brethren. But, it’s a screwy season for the nation’s best teams—so nothing can be taken for granted.

[USC Win Over Stanford Elevates UCLA to Top of CWPA Men’s Water Polo Poll]

Stanford (16-2; 1-1 MPSF) and UCLA (16-2; 1-1 MPSF) will play for second; the Cardinal hosts the Bruins on Saturday at Avery. What earlier this season appeared to be a distinct possibility — that the MPSF might not capture the two NCAA at-large berths —  now appears to be wishful thinking for Golden Coast supporters. Despite one-goal losses to GCC stalwarts Pacific, Pepperdine and UCSB, the Trojans are a good bet to jump to the top of the polls. UCLA and Stanford should also be in the top four; the lone non-MPSF team will almost certainly be Pacific. Meaning—even if Cal sweeps to the MPSF title, two of the remaining Big Four are likely to be ranked ahead of the GCC runner-up.

Meaning, that in a season of change, in the end most everything in NCAA men’s polo is likely to stay the same.