Bucknell, Harvard, Pepperdine, Stanford and UC Davis Qualify for 2019 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournament; Whittier and Claremont-Mudd-Scripps to New DIII Championship

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Joy in Lewisburg as Bucknell gets back to NCAAs for first time in four years. Photo Couresy: Bucknell Athletics

The 2019 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournament field was set on Sunday, with five conferences bestowing automatic bids on their tournament champions, and two at-large bids being designated by selection. In a change from the past five years, there will not be eight participants; the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletics Conference (SCIAC) forfeited its berth to participate in a new DIII championship.

2019-NCAATo recap, the winners from the weekend are: Bucknell in the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference (MAWPC); Harvard, which completed an unbeaten run to the Northeast Water Polo Conference (NWPC); Pepperdine, a winner in the Golden Coast Conference final; top-seeded Stanford, who beat Cal for the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) title and UC Davis, which cruised to the Western Water Polo Association (WWPA) title. In addition, Pacific and USC were awarded at-large berths.

[2019 NCAA Men’s Tournament Selection Thoughts: It’s Anybody’s Guess!]

It’s noteworthy that the two teams from the East have little time to savor their success. Bucknell will travel to New England immediately after finishing their Thanksgiving meals to prepare for Harvard, who will be hosting a NCAA play-in game this Saturday at Blodgett Pool in Cambridge, MA.

For 2019 rematches galore

Perhaps lost in the rush to prepare for the next step in each team’s respective journeys is that both the Bison and the Crimson avenged searing losses in last year’s conference finals to teams that they beat this year. In the NWPC championship match, Harvard overcame a Princeton squad that in 2018 delivered a finals upset to a previously dominant Crimson squad. In Bucknell’s case, they easily triumphed over a George Washington team that in the 2018 final staged a remarkable comeback, as Anakan Destici tied that match at the buzzer before the Colonials went on to beat the Bison in overtime.

There was no such magic available to Destici and GW in the 2019 MAWPC final. Behind three goals from Logan Schofield and two from Rade Joksimovic, host Bucknell wiped away the bad memories, beating George Washington 9-4 in their home pool, the Kinney Natatorium. For the Colonials, Andras Levai scored a hat-trick, while seniors Destici and Andrew Mavis were shut out in their final appearance wearing GW’s buff and blue.

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Colonials are glum lot after a 2nd place finish. Photo Courtesy: George Washington Athletics

The host Bison opened up a 4-1 lead in the first period, then expanded their advantage to 7-2 at halftime, a deficit that proved insurmountable for the two-time defending MAWPC champions. The win allows Joksimovic, who with 519 goals is second all-time to Scott Schultte — both Bucknell’s and the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer with 586 — to close out his career in Lewisburg with a second NCAA berth. In his freshman year the Bison also qualified for the national tournament, where they advanced to Cambridge to face Harvard. That contest was a thrilling affair decided in sudden death overtime on a goal by Harvard’s Harry Tafur. Joksimovic also copped 2019 MAWPC Tournament Most Valuable Player honors; this was on top of being selected the conference’s player of the year all four of his seasons at Bucknell.

The winner of the play-in match at Blodgett will advance to a quarterfinal contest next week against defending champion USC. To qualify for their spot, Harvard rallied against a determined Princeton squad that played the undefeated Crimson as tough as anyone has all season before succumbing 8-7.

Neither team competing for the Northeast Water Polo Conference title at MIT’s Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center pool ever enjoyed more than a two-goal advantage, which the Tigers held midway through the second period after Yurian Quinonnes beat Harvard goalie Noah Hodge twice from long range. The Crimson struck back with three-straight goals to take a 5-4 lead at halftime. On a power play Jackson Enright beat Princeton goalie Billy Motherway in front of his cage, while Austin Sechrest scored on blast outside of five meters. Alexandru Bucur then scored just before intermission, much to the delight of a large contingent of Harvard fans.

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Crimson triumphant! Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

The third period continued the back and forth action, with goals by Princeton’s Logan MacDonell and Keller Maloney offset by an inside strike from Harvard’s Kaleb Archer to make the score 6-6 after three periods. In the fourth, Casey Conrad, MVP from the Tiger’s upset win in the 2018 conference final, solved Hodge on Princeton’s first possession. But Alex Tsotadze flashed the talent that made him a top U.S. national team prospect, beating Motherway in the Tigers’ cage on Harvard next possession, then coolly converting a five-meter penalty at the 3:40 mark. Hodges and his defense held on for an 8-7 win and Harvard’s third NWPC title in the past four years. Taking MVP honors for the tournament was the Crimson goalie, who was brilliant in stopping 16 Tiger attempts.

Not only did the win make Harvard class of 2020 the most successful in program history — with 102 wins in addition to three NCAA berths — this year’s team extend the longest unbeaten streak in Eastern history. That record will be tested by a Bucknell squad that pushed the Crimson around Blodgett earlier this season at the Harvard Invitational before the home team rallied for a 9-8 victory.

Surprising outcomes are the norm out West

On the other coast, Pepperdine completed a thrilling run to its second Golden Coast Conference title in the four years the GCC has offered men’s water polo. The Waves, who hosted the tournament at Malibu’s Raleigh Runnels Memorial Pool, broke out to a three-goal lead at halftime and then held on to beat defending GCC champions Long Beach State. The Waves won without Marko Asic, the team’s third leading scorer who was sitting out a suspension levied from his role in a brawl against UC Santa Barbara last weekend.

Leading scorer Balazs Kosa torched the 49er defense for four scores, while Chris Dilsworth, in what could have been his final game playing for Pepperdine, chipped in two scores, as did Sean Ferrari and Sean Thomas. For his weekend exploits  — a combined five goals in wins over LBS and UC Santa Barbara — Thomas was named tournament MVP. The Waves now get a weekend off before they meet UC Davis, winners of the Western Water Polo Association tournament.

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The Waves rule! Photo Courtesy: Jeff Golden / Pepperdine Athletics

With nine different players scoring — and tournament MVP Jonah Addington providing stellar defense in the UCD cage — the Aggies delivered a dominating 14-5 victory for their third title game win over UC San Diego in the last five years. With his team firing on all cylinders in every aspect of the game, by the middle of the fourth quarter UCD Head Coach Dan Leyson began removing valuables from his pockets and his shoes in preparation for the traditional post-game dive into the pool.

[UC Davis Victory In WWPA Final Leads To NCAA Men’s Water Polo Quarterfinals]

In the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation final, top-ranked Stanford extinguished any NCAA dreams harbored by cross-San Francisco Bay rival Cal-Berkeley. The Golden Bears had upset USC on Saturday and — due to a poor record in conference play — needed to beat the Cardinal to qualify for a shot at their 15th national championship. However, Tyler Abramson (four scores), Quinn Woodhead (three goals) and Bennett Williams (two goals, two assists) helped Stanford to a 10-6 lead at halftime, and the Cardinal defense, backstopped by Andrew Chun (12 saves) did the rest in a 17-11 victory. With their second straight MPSF title, Stanford goes into the NCAA tournament as the number one seed and can rest up until a semifinal match next Saturday, December 7th.

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Stanford’s Quinn Woodhead. Photo Courtesy: Bryan Williams

Danger does lurk for the nation’s leading squad; their half of the bracket contains USC, the defending national champions who in last year’s NCAA final raced out to a 6-goal lead then hung on for a 14-12 victory over the Cardinal. The Trojans were awarded one of two at-large bids — and the fourth overall seed in the tournament — on the strength of a 10-6 win over UCLA in the MPSF third-place game. Not only did the Bruins’ loss give their arch-rivals a 15th-straight NCAA berth, it opened the door for Pacific to capture the other at-large berth, placing them second opposite Stanford in the bracket.

[Pacific, Not UCLA, in as At-Large Team for 2019 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournament]

This ensures that a non-Pac-12 team will advance to the national championship game for the first time since 2013, when the Tigers pushed five-time defending champs USC to overtime before falling 12-11. If the two Pac-12 rivals do meet in this year’s tournament, it will only be in the semifinal round. Some have questioned placing USC fourth behind Pepperdine, ensuring that a GCC team has a much higher shot at the NCAA final then in years past — this is also due to the fact that two teams from the upstart conference are in the tournament for the first time.

SCIAC looks elsewhere for championships

For the past five years, the SCIAC has also gotten an automatic berth in NCAAs. In 2016, 2017 and 2018 the conference was represented by Pomona-Pitzer. But not in 2019 as Claremont-Mudd-Scripps eliminated the Sage Hens in a semifinal match. The Stags then dropped a 13-12 decision to top-seed Whittier in the SCIAC final. The host Poets were led by Maxwell Murray’s hat-trick, as well as a pair of goals from Dominick Nevarez. The senior transfer from Cal Baptist has been a season-long catalyst of Whitter’s success, netting 63 goals, including seven in two SCIAC tournament games to earn tournament MVP honors.

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Whitter takes the SCIAC title and will host new DIII tournament. Photo Courtesy: Tony Leon

CMS did not leave the Lillian Slade Aquatics Center empty-handed; by virtue of advancing to the SCIAC final, the Stags automatically qualified for the first-ever DIII National Collegiate Championship, which will be hosted by the Poets and includes Eastern teams Johns Hopkins and MIT. A brainchild of the SCIAC, Collegiate Water Polo Association and USA Water Polo, the DIII tournament will provide a contrast to NCAAs, as Whittier and MIT meet in one semifinal and CMS and Johns Hopkins in the other. On Sunday, December 8, two national champions will be crowned — one at the DIII level and one at the DI level. And the sport will be better off for it.

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