Despite Early Season Upsets, Pac12 Reigns Supreme at MPSF Invitational

Goalie Adrian Weinberg defending the Cal cage during the MPSF Invite. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Stanford’s 13-9 win over Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) and Pac12 rival UCLA in the 2019 MPSF Invitational final was sweet for the Cardinal—especially in the Bruins’ home pool at Spieker Aquatics Center. The win also represented a measure of redemption for the Big Four—as MPSF and Pac12 programs Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC are known. Early season upsets threatened to disrupt an NCAA men’s water polo hierarchy that has seen these four teams win every national championship title the past two decades—and in 28 of the past 30 years. They have also dominated this event, which for more than a decade was known as the Socal Invitational until a remake the past three years.

mpsf-shield-finalWith the win—Stanford’s fourth straight after a loss to UC Santa Barbara a week ago at Avery Aquatic Center—John Vargas’ squad (10-1) will almost surely reclaim the top spot in the Collegiate Water Polo Association Top 20 rankings. Slotting in at #2 will likely be the Bruins (9-1), whose only loss came at the hands of a Cardinal squad that features national team player Ben Hallock and sharpshooters Ty Abramson, Bennett Williamson and Dylan Woodhead. Behind a national team player of their own—goalie Alex Wolf—UCLA Head Coach Adam Wright’s squad found a way past upstart UC Santa Barbara in a semifinal match on Saturday.

[Stanford, Behind Abramson and Williams, Beats UCLA for 1st MPSF Invite Title Since 2011]

Unlike the Cardinal, a victim last week to a Gaucho squad that over the course of two weeks convincingly beat three of the Big Four, the Bruins found a way to dispel UCSB’s early season invincibility. UCLA pinned a 9-8 loss on Head Coach Wolf Wigo’s squad after a season-opening sprint that saw them go 15-0 and ascend to the top of the Collegiate Water Polo Association poll for the first time. Ashworth Molthen (3 goals), Matthew Kacura (2 goals) and Andy Rodgers (2 goals) provided the bulk of the offense in the Bruins’ win, while Wolf served up a season-high 13 saves.

But it wasn’t only the Gauchos that threatened a Big Four’s grip on NCAA polo that has endured since 1997, when Pepperdine captured the national championship with an 8-7 overtime win against USC in the NCAA final. Pacific, which came into the MPSF Invite as the nation’s #4 squad, took down the Trojans, defending national champions, in a quarterfinal match-up Saturday morning. Like UCSB, the Tigers fell just short to a Pac12 team; Stanford rode Hallock for six goals in a 15-14 win in the other semifinal to set up an all-MPSF final on Sunday.

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

UCLA Head Coach Adam Wright presiding over his Bruins. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

That’s not to say that the two Golden Coast Conference squads should hang their heads; they faced off in a sizzling third-place match that saw play reduced to two key moments; a goal by Pacific’s Engin Ege Colak with a minute left that gave his team a one-goal lead, and a defensive stop by Eli Lule on UCSB’s Leo Yuno that preserved an 11-10 win for the Tigers (9-1).

[Pacific Holds off UC Santa Barbara 11-10 for Third Place @ 2019 MPSF Invitational]

Not to be outdone, USC and Cal engaged in their own battle royale at Spieker. The Trojans (8-2) led by four goals multiple times, but each time the Golden Bears (9-5) stormed back. They cut the lead to one on a goal by Jack Deely with 20 seconds left. But Cal ran out of time, and USC held on for a 13-12 win to capture fifth place.

[USC Trojans knock off Cal Bears 13-12 @ 2019 MPSF Invitational]

No shame for the Gauchos at MPSF Invite

UCSB came into the tournament riding a 13-match winning streak, and left it as losers of two straight—9-8 to host UCLA and 11-10 to Pacific in the tournament’s third-place match up. Despite the losses, the Gauchos (15-2) have to feel good about their prospects going into conference play, which will be the most important part of their season.

Following the UCLA versus UCSB match, Jason Maikis of the UCLA Daily Bruin caught up with UCSB’s Wigo and goalie Danny Roland about their team’s first loss of the season—as well as what comes next for the surprising Gauchos.

[UC Santa Barbara Aims to Replicate Gauchos’ 1979 NCAA Championship Run]

Wolf Wigo on a tough loss to UCLA in their home pool:

The game lived up to what it was supposed to be. It was tied with two minutes left in the game. I thought we played well. The exclusions were more than two to one against us so, despite not getting many calls it was great we were in a position to win at the end.

It’s their home pool and they had a home crowd so they had an advantage—maybe that helped, maybe it didn’t.

I thought overall we played a strong match and nothing to be ashamed of. We’ll come back and try and get the third-place game and try and win as many games the rest of the way as we can.

Roland comes back to Spieker:

We knew he really wanted to win that game—we all did—but I think it was extra special for him. He played a great game, we just came up a little short at the end. We’ll play these guys again in two weeks and look to win that game.

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

Ryan Brosnan represents a bright future for UC Santa Barbara. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Danny Roland on a tight match against Wolf and the Bruins:

We’ve got to keep our same mentality—we’re not gonna change what we’re doing on defense or offense. If they go on a two-goal swing we can fight back. If we go on a two-goal swing then great, we’re up, we just have to play our defensive game.

It was a great battle offensive and defensive and a great atmosphere.

Returning to face former teammates:

For me, we had a great run and we’re in the middle of our season—we need to be playing our best water polo at the end of the season.

This loss is good for us, we know where we stand now. We know how good UCLA is. We know what we need to do and how we can grow from it.