In (Re)match of Nation’s Best, Stanford, USC Will Play For 2018 NCAA Water Polo Title

December 1, 2018; , Palo Alto, CA, USA; Collegiate Men's Water Polo:NCAA Semi Finals: USC vs UCLA; USC 2 Meter Sam Slobodien after scoring the game winning goal Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne
USC's Sam Slobodien puts a dagger in the heart of Bruin fans! Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Saturday at Stanford’s Avery Aquatic Center, two noteworthy streaks were on the line in semifinal matches for the 2018 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournament.

One amounted to a relatively impossible dream: UC San Diego’s quest to be the first non-Division I team in two decades to advance to the national championship match. The other was a marker of almost unimaginable achievement: 13 straight NCAA finals appearances by USC.


By day’s end, the Tritons’ desire proved insufficient in the face of a Stanford second-half onslaught, resulting in a 16-7 win by the host Cardinal. But, Trojan hopes live on, thanks to a scintillating 8-7 win over UCLA, propelling Southern Cal to an incredible 14th straight national title match, against Stanford today at 6 p.m. EST.

In a low-scoring contest that appeared to favor the Bruins, whose goalie Alex Wolf is thought to be the country’s best, it was Nic Porter and the Trojans who came out on top. In stymying sharp-shooting UCLA, Porter, a freshman netminder from Australia, channeled great Aussies from the Trojan past, including Joel Dennerley who backstopped SC to four-straight NCAA titles (2008-2011). In one third quarter sequence, USC’s newest import from Down Under twice thwarted UCLA’s David Stiling at point blank range, preserving a 5-all tie.

December 1, 2018; , Palo Alto, CA, USA; Collegiate Men's Water Polo:NCAA Semi Finals: USC vs UCLA; USC Driver Zach D'Sa scores Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne

Love, the Trojan way! Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

That the Trojans were so competitive in this match—two weeks after a deflating 7-4 loss to the Bruins in the MPSF Tournament’s third-place game—was due to the efforts of four players, including Porter, who were not on the USC roster when the teams met in last year’s NCAA championship match, a 7-5 UCLA win in which Wolf garnered MVP honors.

Two Trojan newcomers—both lefties—played for other teams last year. Sawyer Rhodes was considered the top freshman lefty in the class of 2021 when he signed on with John Vargas and Stanford, but he transferred to USC last spring. Jacob Mercep blistered San Jose State opponents for 93 goals in the 2017 campaign, but could not resist the warlike shriek of Trojan Nation, signing on with Jovan Vavic’s troops in August .

After playing tough defense much of the game, Rhodes made consecutive steals on errant Bruin passes in the fourth; he converted one turnover into a scoring chance for Mercep, whose goal momentarily put USC ahead 6-5.

Early this season, Porter was one of four freshman striving to replace McQuin Baron, who finished his USC career with 1,085 stops between the pipes. Porter’s performance suggests he’s more than enough to fill in for the 6-8 Baron, and if he backstops the Trojan to a title today he’ll have accomplished something that his predecessor did not in four years in Troy.

Perhaps the biggest agent of change between seasons has been Hannes Daube. The true freshman from Orange County was named 2018 Mountain Pacific Sport Federation (MPSF) Newcomer of Year, but all year long he performed like a seasoned veteran, scoring 57 times, including a hat trick in this match.


Cardinals vs. Trojans – here we go again! Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Given Daube’s, Mercep’s, Porter’s and Rhodes’ heroics as well as outstanding performances by UCLA’s Jake Cavano (three goals) and Wolf (16 saves), it was USC’s Sam Slobodien, a workhorse center among Vavic’s thoroughbreds, who shone brightest at game’s end. He delivered the game-winner with 5 seconds remaining, fighting off two Bruin defenders and handcuffing Wolf with a quick strike that trickled into the goal, preserving the Trojan’s streak and ending their arch-rival’s hopes of back-to-back NCAA titles.

That USC will meet Stanford at Avery appears right; the two teams played a memorable match at Avery earlier this season, a 13-11 victory for the Cardinal, when Vargas’ program first demonstrated this would be a special season. In a rematch in USC’s pool, the Trojans returned the favor, scoring a 10-9 win in the final of the MPSF Invitational.

After struggling to separate from UC San Diego and goalie Jack Turner in the first half of their semifinal match, Stanford exploited openings in the Triton defense to fill the Triton net with nine goals after intermission. Blake Parrish hit for four scores, while Oliver Williams out-dueled Turner, recording 15 saves. Connor Turnbow-Lindenstadt, who struck for 7 goals on Thursday against Long Beach State in a 14-9 win, was held to three in this match, including two after the outcome was decided.


Denny Harper and Connor Turnbow-Lindenstadt. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

The loss extinguished the dream of another finals appearance for long-time UCSD Head Coach Denny Harper. In 2000 the Tritons upset USC in a semifinal match before UCLA beat them for the national championship. The Stanford vs. Southern Cal match-up also means that it will be 21 years since a non-Pac-12 school has earned an NCAA title. Pepperdine in 1997 was the last team to accomplish that feat.

[39 Years And Counting In The Triton Family]

After failing to qualify last year for NCAAs despite a line-up that featured five red-shirt seniors, Stanford has won with a mix of Parrish, Williams, Woodheads (Dylan and Quinn), Ben Hallock, Tyler Abramson—a lefty who may be the biggest reason for Rhodes’ departure—and freshman Jackson Seybold, among others. If they are to capture their first NCAA title since 2002, Vargas’ first year on The Farm, Cardinal goalie Williams will need to match his younger Trojan counterpart, and shut down those SC newcomers, Marko Vavic and more.

But don’t go to sleep on Slobodien; he may be the most dangerous Trojan of all.

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