As NCAA Men’s Water Polo Season Goes into Conference Play, CWPA Top 20 Holds Steady

stanford-ucla-mpsf-sep19
UCLA's Ashworth Molthen and Stanford's AJ Rossman faced off in September; they're the nation's two top teams. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

The Collegiate Water Polo Association’s Men’s Varsity Top 20 poll—released on Wednesday—had no significant changes from the previous week. The biggest change was George Washington dropping out of the rankings after a one-sided loss to up-and-coming Navy. The country’s top five programs—Stanford, UCLA, Pacific, UC Santa Barbara and Pepperdine—remained constant for the second week in a row.

Starting this weekend, conference play takes precedence, as teams from the six conferences that send teams to the NCAA men’s tournament—actually, make that five, because the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) has relinquished it’s automatic qualifier—jockey for position in their respective postseason tournaments.

[2019 Swimming World Men’s Water Polo Previews: All Six NCAA-Eligible Conferences]

Most noteworthy is the opening of Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) play with the Big Four facing each other in Los Angeles. USC will host Stanford; UCLA will face Cal. But, they’re not the big four THIS season; the Cardinal and Bruins are at the top of the poll, but USC and Cal are not.

Harvard will look to extend the longest win streak in program history, while San Jose State has a chance to show they’re better than their record suggests. This year Pomona-Pitzer does not have a path to the national championship but can focus on securing one of two SCIAC berths in the new DIII Final Four.

#1 Stanford (15-1), as the expression says, it’s “Go Time!” for the Cardinal. Not that they haven’t been “going” the past eight weeks. With a winning streak that has stretched to ten, Head Coach John Vargas’ side will travel to Los Angeles for their first MPSF match of the year (not that conference play is that deep; there’s only three regular season contests for the Big Four). But, the importance should not be understated; after (mostly) knocking around non-conference opponents, Stanford  faces a depleted but dangerous Trojan squad in their home pool.

September 28, 2019; Spieker Aquatics Complex, Los Angeles, CA, USA; MWP: UC Santa Barbara Gauchos vs UCLA Bruins; Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne

UCLA (blue caps versus UC Santa Barbara) always plays defense. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

#2 UCLA (15-1); the Bruins are the other half of the MPSF opening weekend, as they host Cal at Spieker Aquatics Center—easily making LA the center of the American polo universe on Saturday. Like Stanford, UCLA is riding a winning streak—their only loss courtesy ofthe Cardinal at the end of September—and Head Coach Adam Wright’s squad also faces a desperate foe. The Golden Bears are on a two-game losing streak and unexpectedly languishing at #8 in the rankings. Not that the Bruins will feel sorry for them; fortunes among the Big Four can turn on a single outcome—and in the past two years the teams’ goal differential in six matches is three in favor of the Bruins, who have won four of the six contests, including earlier this year.

#3 Pacific (13-3; 2-0 GCC); with a 15-8 win over Pepperdine last weekend, the Tigers remain unbeaten in conference play. Friday they face another GCC opponent, traveling to Long Beach for a match against the 49ers. This is a revenge game for Head Coach James Graham’s team; LBS is ranked sixth in the nation, reigning conference champs and upset Pacific in last year’s GCC title match. For Graham, there’s also the calculation of qualifying for NCAAs outside of conference play and what it will take to earn an at-large berth. As hosts of the 2019 national championship, it’s a tremendous opportunity for his Tigers—but also comes with great pressure. Having a good enough body of work during the regular season may be a hedge against another disappointment in the GCC tournament.

#4 UC Santa Barbara (17-5; 1-1); a five-game losing streak, where four of the losses were by one goal to Stanford, Pacific (twice) and USC, threatened to wreck the Gauchos’ best season in decades. Back-to-back wins last weekend—including another victory over Cal—has helped right Wolf Wigo’s program. He’s figuring the same odds as Graham; how can the Gauchos get to NCAAs for the first time since 1991 even if they don’t win the GCC’s automatic berth? Simple: win every game you can, including a match Saturday in Santa Barbara against conference rival UC Irvine.

ucsb_Photo_sep19

UCSB’s magical season continues. Photo Courtesy: Eric Isaacs

#5 Pepperdine (17-7; 1-1 GCC); the Waves fell just short of what would have been an incredible trifecta; wins against Pac12 tormentors Cal, USC and Stanford  in the same season. The last time they accomplished that feat? 1997, when Head Coach Terry Schroeder guided his team to an NCAA title. After beating the Golden Bears and the Trojans on consecutive weekends, last Sunday the Waves fell to the Cardinal, 12-11 at Avery. It was part of a lost weekend; Pepperdine also dropped a decision to GCC rival UCSB. Up Saturday is a match with yet another conference foe: San Jose State will come to Malibu—and the Waves should beware an upset possibility against a Spartan squad that’s lost seven matches by two goals or less.

#6 Long Beach State (13-9; 1-1 GCC); the story of the 49ers season so far is how little impact Quentin Osborne has had on Head Coach Gavin Arroyo’s line-up Appearing in all 21 matches, the transfer from UCLA has posted 18 goals; certainly, his success with the Bruins suggested a greater impact on his new team. Now, however, may be the ideal time for Osborne to shine. With a match against Pacific on Friday, followed by Cal on Sunday, having their newcomer compliment the scoring of Austin Stewart (54 goals), Matt Morris (32 goals) and former Huntington Beach High School teammate Garrett Zaan (28 tallies) will go a long way towards pushing LBS into the picture for a national title.

#7 USC (9-4); with a possible total of 20 matches for this season, the Trojans are looking at their lowest total since 2001, when they played 21 games. They went 30-3 last year in capturing the program’s tenth NCAA men’s title; given the results this season—including losses to Pepperdine, UCSB and Pacific (twice)—2018 seem long ago. A win over Stanford Saturday would dramatically change the arc of the Trojans’ season. Question is, with Marko Vavic sidelined and Sawyer Rhodes missing in action (he’s not even listed on this season’s roster) does Head Coach Marko Pintaric have enough to take down the top-ranked Cardinal?

#8 Cal-Berkeley (10-7); also languishing in an unfamiliar half of the poll’s top ten are the Golden Bears. Their reduced stature has no precedent from the past decade; the lowest Cal was ranked this late in the season was sixth in 2012; the Golden Bears rallied that season and finished third—even though they did not qualify for NCAAs. Head Coach Kirk Everist’s squad is in danger of missing out on the national championship this season as well; it’s clear that there will be a different determination about at-large bids this season, meaning the MPSF will not necessarily scoop up both. If Cal wants to be in the picture for another NCAA title, they’re likely going to have to win their conference tournament; demonstrating they can beat UCLA on the road would be an indicator they’re capable of that level of success.

20190908 WPM vs. CLU, McKendree

Harvard just keeps winning. Photo Courtesy: Gil Talbot

#9 (T) Harvard (22-0; 5-0 NWPC); just five contests stand between Harvard and a perfect regular season. The Crimson have beaten everyone this season, though their margin of victory has narrowed of late, with five of their last eight matches being decided by two goals or less. This coming weekend may prove decisive in Head Coach Ted Minnis’ quest for perfection; on Saturday they host NWPC rival St. Francis Brooklyn in the morning and Iona, also a conference foe, that evening. Princeton will then visit Cambridge on Sunday morning; if Harvard gets through this weekend unscathed it greatly improves the likelihood of unprecedented success in Cambridge.

[Winning is Contagious: Ted Minnis and Charlie Owens of Harvard Men’s Water Polo]

#9 (T) UC San Diego (18-6; 6-0 WWPA); their string of 11-straight wins snapped, the Tritons have one last hurdle to a successful regular season: beating conference rival UC Davis next week at Canyonview Aquatic Center. A 12-10 loss to Long Beach State—UCSD’s first to the GCC powerhouse since a double overtime loss in 2017—had little bearing on what matters now to Head Coach Denny Harper and his team: winning the WWPA regular season and getting ready for the postseason. All of that will take place November 22 – 24 in Riverside, hosted by Cal Baptist.

#11 UC Davis (10-7; 4-0 WWPA); unlike their chief conference rival, the Aggies still have a lot of polo to play before the postseason. Saturday, there’s WWPA rival Santa Clara. Next Thursday they go on the road for conference matches against Loyola Marymount and UC San Diego, which is the regular season finale for Head Coach Dan Leyson’s squad. A modest three-match winning streak suggest UC Davis is peaking at the right time; really, what will matter is how Nir Gross (41 goals) finishes; the former IDF soldier will need to save his best for last this season.

#12 San Jose State (7-13; 1-1 GCC); wins last weekend against East Coast powers Bucknell and St. Francis Brooklyn underscore the gap between coasts. The Spartans have beaten only one ranked team from the West (UC Irvine) yet they’re ahead of almost every team from the East—because they deserve to be. Question is: will they finish strong against their GCC rivals? This Saturday they face Pepperdine. Sunday they travel to Los Angeles for a contest against USC.

#13 Loyola Marymount (11-9; 4-1 WWPA); if the Lions hope to make the GCC a three-team race, opportunity will knock next Thursday, when they host the Aggies of UC Davis. First then need to get past Concordia (8-12), which at 3-2 in conference play—and wins over WWPA foes Air Force, Fresno Pacific and Santa Clara—has seen a bounce-back season under Head Coach Dreason Barry. LMU would be wise not to overlook the Eagles when they visit the Burns Center this Saturday.

#14 UC Irvine (6-10; 0-2 GCC); the losing continues in Irvine, where the Anteaters have dropped seven-straight. The good news? They’re mostly done with non-conference play, which saw them lose to Stanford, UCLA, USC and Cal (twice). The bad news is they face GCC rival UC Santa Barbara this Saturday and Pacific next. Wins this season have not been easy to come by for a fabled UCI program that, barring a dramatic reversal of fortune, will experience back-to-back losing season for the first time in Head Coach Marc Hunt’s 15-year tenure.

#15 Bucknell (15-7; 6-1 MAWPC); now back on their more familiar side of the country, the Bison will look to finish this season strong, with five straight conference matches, starting this weekend with Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference opponents La Salle and Johns Hopkins traveling to Lewisburg, PA.

nomura-fordham-sep19

Fordham’s Bill Harris, Oscar Nomora and Brian Bacharach. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

#16 Fordham (17-5; 5-2 MAWPC); as the regular season winds down for the Rams, a couple of milestones renain in play. First is Fordham’s all-time goal scoring mark; it’s virtually certain that leading scorer Jake Miller-Tolt has that in the bag. Next is capturing a conference title for the first time since Fordham and Brown shared the honor in 2009, when the CWPA was divided into north and south divisions. The Rams can clear that hurdle by finishing strong; in the comping weeks they get one more crack at Bucknell and George Washington, the other MAWPC leaders. First, there’s the Judge Cup to be played Wednesday night in the Bronx. The Judges are the East’s first family of water polo; Chris—arguably the greatest player from this coast to miss out on the national team—played for Fordham, just like his dad, Francis Xavier Judge. Brothers Greg, Matt and Raymond went to Iona and are now in the Gael Hall of Fame. The wrinkle? Raymond’s son Stephen will play for Fordham.

#17 St. Francis Brooklyn (17-8; 3-2 NWPC); with a 16-10 win Wednesday night against Iona, the Terriers opened strong on the last sprint of the regular season. Now comes the tough part; Harvard and MIT in Cambridge on Saturday, and Brown in Providence on Sunday. Head Coach Bora Dimitrov has the depth and talent to finish the season strong—and avoid Harvard in the semifinals. Winning out this weekend would do wonders for both of those goals.

#18 Princeton (12-12; 4-1 NWPC); the Tigers may be experiencing growing pains in year two of the Dusty Litvak era. Their head coach is as focused as any coach in the country, but select losses this season are noteworthy—including a 10-7 defeat last Sunday to host Santa Clara that soured what would have been a successful excursion out West. This weekend presents an even bigger road trip; Brown Harvard and MIT on the road.

#19 Cal Baptist (12-14; 2-3 WWPA); the Lancers opened the season tied for 16th in the polis, dropped out for a stretch, and now have crept back in on the strength of wins over Bucknell, Santa Clara and St. Francis, as well as a one-goal loss Thursday night to Loyola Marymount. Saturday is a dangerous but winnable game against a re-building Air Force team in Colorado Spring; a win may push the Lancers up higher in the polls.

[Johns Hopkins Wins DIII Eastern Championship; Will Join MIT in First-Ever DIII Collegiate Championship]

#20 Pomona-Pitzer (16-9; 7-2 SCIAC); with Johns Hopkins and MIT qualifying for the new DIII Collegiate Championship by virtue of advancing to the CWPA DIII Eastern Championship–won 16-12 by Hopkins—half of the tournament’s Final Four has now been decided. The SCIAC tournament will determine the other half—and it will be shocking if the Sage Hens are not one of two representatives from the SCIAC. But, this season nothing can be taken for granted—so Pomona-Pitzer will want to win out and ensure that they host one of the two postseason semifinals. That starts this Saturday with a home match against conference foe Redlands.