CWPA Top 20 Comes Full Circle: Southern Cal is #1 in NCAA Men’s Water Polo

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Marin Dasic has hat-tricks in the last three USC matches — all wins. Photo Courtesy: John McGillen

The 2019 NCAA men’s season reads much like a Hollywood script; the favorite gets pushed around by fresh-faced upstarts, stares blankly into an ignominious end to its season—then rallies behind a grizzled veteran.

It’s no a script; it’s Trojan pride at its finest — which is why USC has emerged at the top of the latest Collegiate Water Polo Association Top 20 poll. Given that the Trojans were #1 in the CWPA’s preseason poll, this is not really unexpected. What is surprising is that a down-on-its luck USC got back-to-back wins on consecutive weekends against Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) rivals Stanford and UCLA — who were each at the top of the CWPA poll until the Trojans beat them behind hat-tricks from senior sharpshooter Marin Dasic.

As if to affirm that the hierarchy in NCAA men’s polo is immutable, of the Big Four, only Cal has been displaced from the top of the polls. Stanford is tied with USC and UCLA is third in this week’s poll —almost identical to their standings in the preseason, when the Cardinal and Bruins were both ranked second. The Golden Bears are in an unfamiliar place — seventh in the country — but they could still rise up and shock their Pac-12 rivals in the MPSF tournament.

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Harvard has to get this far to make this season really count. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

On the East Coast, Harvard has accomplished what no other NCAA varsity team has before: get through the regular season undefeated. At 27-0 it is by far the greatest season —so far — in Crimson history. Next up: The Northeast Water Polo Conference and a possible return to the national championship tournament.

[After Hectic Weekend, NCAA Men’s Water Polo Post-Season Picture Comes into Focus]

#1 (T) USC (12-4; 2-0); what makes this season so surreal is that the Trojans — in their first year with Marko Pintaric as head coach — have only lost to non-Pac-12 teams. They beat MPSF foe Cal in a non-conference match in September and have now beaten Stanford and UCLA, with one more conference match to play, this Saturday in Berkeley against the Golden Bears. It has been 28 years — 1991 — when USC was coached by John Williams and staggering to a 14-15 record that the Trojans lost as many games to teams not in the Pac-12. Given the Lazarus act by Pintaric’s team, it’s hard to see them stumbling against Cal — or perhaps any other time this season. The win over UCLA last Saturday clinched the regular season title for USC, meaning it’s highly likely the Trojans will be at NCAAs for the 20th straight year.

#1 (T) Stanford (16-2; 1-1 MPSF); Ben Hallock (57 goals) is the conference’s leading scorer — and on track for another MPSF Player of the Year award. Tyler Abramson (49 goals) is right behind his Cardinal teammate, while goalie Andrew Chun has a sparkling 7.61 goals against average. But, if the Cardinal stumble this weekend against UCLA they will drop out of a tie for first, and will fall behind the Trojans and Bruins in the race for an NCAA title.

#3 UCLA (16-2; 1-1 MPSF); just when it seemed that UCLA had a clear path to winning it all again, USC throws out a banana peel. Now the Bruins’ hated rival is on top. What’s surprising is not that they lost to the Trojans — in their head-to-head competition it’s 87-83-1 in favor of the Bruins — but that they came out so flat against their arch-rival, falling behind 3-1 early and never catching up. On Saturday there’s a trip up the coast to play Stanford, who UCLA lost to more than a month ago. Ashworth Molthen (34 goals, 39 assists) leads the Bruins, but it may be Nicolas Saveljic (hat trick against USC) who has to step-up if his team is going to walk out of Avery with a win.

#4 Pacific (15-3; 4-0 GCC); should anyone feel sorry for the Tigers? They’ve won four straight against conference foes — including ending a torrid Pepperdine winning streak — but have gotten pushed out of the NCAA at-large bid picture by USC. This likely burns Pacific Head Coach James Graham because his team has beaten the Trojans twice this season. And look who’s at the top! A consolation is a 19-9 win over UC Irvine last Saturday that clinched the GCC regular season title and made the Tigers the top seed in the playoffs for the second straight year. But, they were number one in their conference last year, got upset by Long Beach State in the GCC final — and missed NCAAs.

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

UCSB’s Cole Brosnan. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

#5 UC Santa Barbara (19-5; 3-1 GCC); like the Tigers, there’s only one path to NCAA for the Gauchos; win the GCC tournament and capture the conference’s automatic bid. That’s a distinct possibility for a UCSB program that’s won four straight after a five-match losing streak. First, the Gauchos have a chance to beat Pepperdine for the fourth time in 2019; the last time they won four times in a season against one team was UCLA in 1979. The last win was for the national championship.

[Remembering the Remarkable ’79 UCSB Gauchos—NCAA Men’s Water Polo Champs]

#6 Pepperdine (21-7; 3-1 GCC); having won 11 of 13 matches, the Waves are on their best run of the season. Last Saturday they escaped with a 10-9 win over Long Beach State on the strength of Chris Dilworth’s hat trick. The senior has gotten hot lately, with five goals during a four-game win streak to push his season total to 32. But it’s Balazs Kosa and Marko Asic who have been the difference makers for Head Coach Terry Schroeder—and he’ll need all the scoring he can get for his team to beat high-scoring UC Santa Barbara.

[From the Vault: Pepperdine’s Schroeder Talks NCAA Water Polo, 2016 US Olympic Men, MPSF & GCC Split]

#7 Cal-Berkeley (12-9; 0-2 MPSF); there’s only one pathway for the Golden Bears to the national championship; win the MPSF tournament, something they haven’t done since 2006. After a 15-8 loss last weekend to cross-Bay rival Stanford, Cal will host a red-hot USC squad this Saturday. The MPSF playoffs start on November 22; Cal will kick it off with a match against either Austin College or Penn State Behrend.

#8 Long Beach State (14-12; 1-3 GCC); the 49ers have played ten games decided by two goals or less — and lost half of them. This just may not be their year; they close out the regular season with matches against Loyola Marymount Thursday and UC Irvine Saturday. Then, it’s on to the GCC tournament, which LBS won last year.

#9 Harvard (27-0; 10-0 NWPC); it’s been the greatest regular season in program history, but it will be for naught if the Crimson don’t get back to NCAA for the third time in the past four seasons. Convincing wins last weekend over conference rivals Brown and MIT demonstrate that Head Coach Ted Minnis has his troops ready for a deep dive in NCAAs. Up next: the NWPC playoffs hosted by MIT; Harvard gets a bye into the semifinals.

[Winning is Contagious: Ted Minnis and Charlie Owens of Harvard Men’s Water Polo]

#10 UC Davis (13-7; 7-0 WWPA); a big win last Saturday over WWPA rival UC San Diego sets the Aggies up for the top seed in their conference tournament. They’ll face Fresno Pacific on November 22; if they win this year it will be UCD’s third trip to NCAAs in four years.

#11 UC San Diego (18-7; 6-1 WWPA); a deflating loss last Saturday to UC Davis puts UCSD in a first-round playoff match against Air Force. The WWPA tournament is a toss-up between the Tritons and the Aggies; they’ve met in the past four conference finals, with the teams splitting the results. Which team will break the tie? Will both even advance?

#12 San Jose State (7-17; 1-3); a regular season-ending match against Pacific will determine where the Spartans are seeded for their conference tournament. They’ve yet to finish above the bottom of the GCC; this is the year SJSU can beat out UC Irvine and move up the ranks of their conference pecking order.

#13 Loyola Marymount (13-10; 5-2); the Lions could be spoilers in the upcoming WWPA playoffs. First, there’s a match against Long Beach State, then they’ll open their conference tournament against Santa Clara, who LMU beat earlier this season. What will make for great theater is if the Lions face UCSD in the WWPA semifinals; they own a one-goal win over the Tritons earlier this season.

#14 UC Irvine (7-13; 0-4 GCC); a 16-5 win over Concordia snapped an Anteater ten-match losing streak. They have a final regular season match against conference rival Long Beach State, then it’s on to the playoffs, where UCI — seeded last — will open against either Pepperdine or UC Santa Barbara.

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GW’s Atakan Destici. Photo Courtesy: George Washington Athletics

#15 Bucknell (18-8; 9-2 MAWPC); a loss last Sunday to George Washington will make a match this Saturday against Fordham decisive in determining the conference’s top seed. Bucknell owns a home victory over the Rams earlier this season; the Bronx won’t be so inviting to the visiting Bison.

#16 Fordham (22-5; 8-2 MAWPC); with seven straight wins, the Rams are one of the hottest team in the East. A win Saturday against visiting Bucknell will give the Rams their first conference title since 2009 — and demonstrate that they’re fit enough to qualify for the national championship for the first time ever.

#17 Cal Baptist (15-14; 4-3 WWPA); at one point the Lancers had an unsightly 5-11 record. But a 10-3 sprint has boosted their hopes considerably. Locked into the third spot in their upcoming playoffs, Cal Baptist will face Concordia — who they’ve already beaten twice — and will likely face UC Davis in the WWPA semifinal. This is not a slam-dunk match for the conference top seed; CBU is very competitive at home, and they’re hosting at the Lancer Aquatic Center.

#18 George Washington (20-8; 9-3 MAWPC); an unexpected loss to Navy appears to have kept the Colonials down in the polls, but the performances that stick out are a win over Fordham without star striker Atakan Destici, and a win last Sunday over Bucknell, where Destici had a hat trick. GW now has two weeks to rest up before the MAWPC tournament, where they’ll look to capture a third-straight title; what’s still in doubt is where they’ll be seeded. At the moment, they’re third behind Bucknell and Fordham who face off Saturday.

#19 (T) Princeton (15-14; 7-3 NWPC); after playing the toughest schedule in the East — with matches against Western powers Stanford, UCLA, USC and UC San Diego — the question for the Tigers is: are they good enough to beat Harvard? If the seeding holds for the NWPC tournament they’ll face the Crimson in the final for the third-straight time. That’s the match that all this season’s prep has been meant for.

19 (T) Brown (20-11; 6-4 NWPC); a late season sprint, where the Bears won 11 of 13, has positioned them to avoid Harvard in the NWPC semifinals. But, that means they’ll face the Tigers, with whom they have split two matches this season. Right now, everyone in the conference is second to Harvard; a 10-4 loss last Saturday suggests Brown is not at the same level as the Crimson. But Head Coach Felix Mercado hopes that conference play is a different story; first the Bears have to get past Iona on November 22nd.