Road to 2018 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournament: Cal Out, Upsets Abound

Sunday's George Washington vs Bucknell game was one for the ages. Photo Courtesy: Gloria Kushel

Late last night, the bracket for the 2018 NCAA Men’s Tournament was posted at and it contained the most contentious sliver of information regarding this year’s national championship: which of the nation’s top four teams will NOT qualify for NCAA. Stanford, with a 12-10 win in the MPSF title match, claimed the conference’s automatic NCAA bid. USC and UCLA—both of whom lost on Saturday in the MPSF semifinals—claimed at-large bids.

That meant that University of California at Berkeley—on the wrong end of the score against the Cardinal—was the odd Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) team out.


Cal’s absence this year—the first time the Golden Bears haven’t qualified since 2014—was one of many surprises from this weekend. Three upset winners advanced to this year’s national tournament, the most noteworthy being Long Beach State, who yesterday claimed the Golden Coast Conference’s automatic bid, beating GCC favorite Pacific 10-6 behind four goals from Austin Stewart. The 49ers are now going to NCAAs for the first time since 1991.

Joining the underdog parade were two teams from the East. Capping a late-season run that saw them win five straight matches, the Tigers of Princeton took down top-seeded Harvard 12-10 in the Northeast Water Polo Conference final to claim a play-in berth in NCAAs. Next Saturday at 11 a.m. (all times EST) Head Coach Dustin Litvak’s squad will host George Washington in the DeNunzio Pool; on Sunday in the Bronx the Colonials shocked Bucknell in the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference title tilt. Atakan Destici scored with two seconds left to push the match into overtime, where Andrew Mavis sealed a 12-11 win with a late goal.

In the play-in game on the other coast, Long Beach State will look to extend their six-match winning streak to seven, hosting a meeting on Saturday at 10 a.m against Pomona-Pitzer, a winner over Claremont-Mudd-Scripps by a score of 11-4.

Once these two play-in games are decided at the sites of the higher-ranked teams, championship play shifts to Stanford’s Avery Aquatic Center, where MPSF stalwart UCLA will be waiting to meet the Princeton vs. George Washington winner at 5:45 p.m. UC San Diego, an 11-10 winner over UC Davis in the Western Water Polo Association final thanks to four scores from Kacper Langiewicz, will face the LBS vs. Pomona-Pitzer winner at 4 p.m.


The tournament’s top-two seeds enter the field during semifinal action on Saturday; Stanford, hosting NCAAs for the first time since 2013, will play at 6 p.m. (EST). USC, the number two seed despite back-to-back losses on Saturday and Sunday to Cal and UCLA respectively, will face the survivor of the other half of the bracket.

Like last year, when UCLA was tabbed as the NCAA tournament’s top team despite a loss to USC in the MPSF final, controversy will likely surround Cal’s absence. It would have been understandably questioned if the defending national champion Bruins had been bounced from the draw—though their loss to Stanford on Saturday did push them to the bubble of consideration. The Trojans are perhaps one team whose continued presence in the championship round may be called into question.

Two losses at the end of the season should not wipe away a record of earlier success, but that’s exactly what happened to Stanford last year and no one cried for the Cardinal. Jovan Vavic now has an opportunity to extend a remarkable streak of success; appearing in the national championship final every year since 2005.


Let’s face it: we’re ALL gonna miss seeing this guy in Cal colors (even you Cardinals)! Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

The reality is that Cal slipped up early when they dropped a 15-14 overtime decision for Harvard in the Aggie Round Up on September 15. That loss—the first ever to the Crimson—combined with a 2-4 record against Pac12 rivals meant the Golden Bears had to beat the Cardinal on Sunday and win the berth outright. They fell short and USC, which went 0-for 2, is in.

As the next two weeks unfold, it’s instructive to hear what Princeton’s Litvak said right after a 10-8 regular season win over St. Francis Brooklyn which kicked off their current winning streak.

“This was more of a complete team effort today,” the Tiger coach said after the November 4 win. “We were getting a bit in a rut; when games weren’t going our way we were trying to find individual solutions. Unfortunately we dug ourselves into deeper and deeper holes.”

MWP_Dustin Litvak

Dustin Litvak. Photo Courtesy: Princeton Athletics

Addressing the question of what does it take to win, the first-year coach was specific.

“At the end of the year it comes down to depth [and] a little bit of luck,” he said. “You always hear: Who wants it more? Every team wants it. If you don’t, what are you doing every day?!”

Then, in words that proved prophetic this weekend, the first Northeastern coach in five years to capture an NCAA berth in his rookie year—George Washington’s Barry King took the MAWPC title last year in his inaugural season in Washington D.C.— said: “To me it’s more about controlling the pace of the game, what’s been successful for us—and stop thinking ahead to the ‘What ifs’—because that leads you to not be in the moment and then you’re not performing the way you need to.’

To paraphrase the one and only (and now deceased) Stan Lee: “Nuff Said!”