At MPSF Men’s Water Polo Tourney, One Top Team Will Drop From NCAA Contention

Avery Aquatics Center, Host to MPSF Tournament. Photo Courtesy: Stanford Athletics

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

In a season of unprecedented parity — at different times Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC have all been ranked as the nation’s top team — this weekend’s Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) Men’s Water Polo Tournament will impose order by virtue of simple math; by Sunday night one of the nation’s four top teams will be eliminated from contention for the 2017 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championship.

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“The MPSF Tournament this year will be one of the most competitive tournaments we have had, which is good for the sport of water polo,” UCLA Head Coach Adam Wright said. “Everybody has beaten everybody this year and on any given day, any of us could win it.”

At stake is not only the conference’s automatic bid, but two at-large bids that are virtually certain to be awarded to MPSF teams. The NCAA selection committee will announces seeding and at-large bids on Sunday.

“Every team in our conference has something to play for, whether it’s the automatic bid or an at-large berth.” Wright said. “It should be a really exciting weekend of water polo,”

Two semifinal matches will be held today at Stanford’s Avery Aquatics Center. The top-ranked Cardinal will host #4 USC at 3 p.m. PST and #2 Cal will play #3 UCLA at 4:30 p.m. PST. The MPSF Championship match will be on Sunday at 1 p.m. PST and be televised on the Pac-12 Network.

Because of their youth, Wright’s Bruins (18-3, 1-2 MPSF) may be the tournament’s most dangerous team. Led by freshman Nicolas Saveljic’s 39 goals, UCLA—with 17 underclassmen—has surprised conference foes a number of times this season, including two important wins over arch-rival USC.

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Nicolas Saveljic. Photo Courtesy: UCLA Athletics

“We have had the opportunity the last three weeks to progress and the hope is, that will pay off this weekend.” Wright said. “It’s every team’s goal to be at their best at the end of the year. We’re excited to see where we stand with that goal.”

The Trojans (22-3, 1-2 MPSF) have been the conference’s most consistent team. Freshman Marko Vavic’s 43 goals have powered an MPSF-leading (389 goals) USC squad that held the top spot in the Collegiate Water Polo Association Men’s Varsity Poll for five consecutive weeks until a 6-3 loss to Cal on November 4. A 12-11 sudden-death overtime loss to UCLA last weekend has not dampened the confidence of USC Head Coach Jovan Vavic.

“The expectation every time we go into this tournament is to win it,” Vavic said. “We won it last year and we expect to do that again. We’ve worked very hard to get to this point. We had some bumps and bruises on the way here, and have learned from them.”

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Marko Vavic. Photo Courtesy: USC Athletics

“Even in our losses I feel we outplayed our opponent. We lost the game mainly because we missed our opportunities, even though we created plenty,” he added.

“Our expectation is to win the tournament and advance to NCAAs.”

The team with perhaps the most on the line this weekend is currently number one in the country. Stanford (18-3; 2-1 MPSF) raised expectations for 2017 by red-shirting five players last year, including Olympian Ben Hallock.

So far, the gambit has paid off brilliantly. Hallock, a freshman who has captured MPSF newcomer of the week honors three times, leads the Cardinal with a conference-high 53 goals, while red-shirt senior goalie Drew Holland has topped 900 saves for his career, a Cardinal record. Stanford comes into the tournament riding a 12-match winning streak, including an 11-10 win a week ago over cross-Bay rival Cal.

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Ben Hallock. Photo Courtesy: Stanford Athletics

The Golden Bears (18-2, 2-1 MPSF) entered the season as the country’s top-ranked team, and—after last year’s impressive run to the 2016 title, which included overtime wins over UCLA and USC—have the talent and mental toughness to again finish on top.

“This year’s MPSF Championship will be very exciting,” said Cal Head Coach Kirk Everist. “There is a great deal of parity in the conference this year and I expect the games to be very close and exciting. I am happy with how our team has performed thus far and look forward to watching them compete this weekend.”

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Luca Cupido. Photo Courtesy Cal Athletics

Key to Cal’s chances is the health of leading scorer Luca Cupido (50 goals). The senior, who missed the past two matches, joined junior Johnny Hooper (39 goals) in powering an offense that averaged almost 14 goals a game.

One participant at this year’s tournament has no chance at an NCAA berth. Coming off an 0-26 season where they finished the year fielding only eight players, Penn State-Behrend (6-12) rebounded this season behind the stellar play of freshman netminder Matt Olimski. With games today against Stanford and USC, head coach Joe Tristan has goals far more modest than his West Coast rivals.

“Our guys are excited to play,” Tristan said of his team, playing in only its second MPSF tournament. “They’ve been talking the past few weeks about how they feel so much better now that they have players, they have subs, they have all these different things that they didn’t have last year.”

Like water polo fans all over the country, Tristan’s team will be spectators on Sunday when an MPSF champion is crowned, and the NCAA’s top tournament seed is decided.

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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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