Stanford Frustrates Top-Ranked Trojans in MPSF Men’s Water Polo Opener

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Stanford's Ben Hallock threads a shot through the USC defense. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

After marching unopposed this season to 17 wins, on Saturday in Palo Alto USC ran into a determined Stanford squad, which claimed a 13-11 decision over the nation’s top-ranked squad.

The host Cardinal, which at one point enjoyed a five-goal advantage behind four scores from super sophomore Ben Hallock, withstood an offensive explosion by Trojan newcomer Hannes Daube (6 goals). With 31 seconds remaining in the match, Tyler Abramson ended Daube’s heroics, beating USC goalie Nic Porter to put the final touch on a huge win for third-ranked Stanford.

With the loss, the top-ranked Trojans (17-1; 0-1 MPSF), who previously this season had outscored opponents by an astounding 242 goals, will certainly drop from the top of the Collegiate Water Polo Association rankings, while the #3 Cardinal (9-0; 1-0 MPSF) may very well leap over #2 UCLA—a 11-8 winner yesterday against #17 San Jose State—to claim the nation’s top polo spot.

John Vargas’ squad came into its first Mountain Pacific Sports Federation match with an 8-0 record and a win over #5 UC Santa Barbara—relatively meager results compared to USC’s recent resume of success which includes two wins over the Gauchos, one a dominating 16-2 home decision last week. Jovan Vavic’s squad has tremendous offensive potential, led by son Marko (39 goals) and lefty transfer Jacob Mercep (37).

Stanford may not have had substantial game experience in 2018 but they have Hallock, who at just 20 years of age already has an Olympic appearance—the 2016 Games in Rio—and 2017 MPSF Player of the Year honors to his credit. He and his teammate Dylan Woodhead also gained valuable experience last month representing Team USA at an international tournament in Berlin. Playing against some of the world’s best players helped sharpened their respective skills for this opening match of NCAA varsity water polo’s toughest conference.

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Stanford’s Dylan Woodhead. Photo Courtesy: Bryan Williams

Woodhead opened the scoring three minutes in, but USC’s Matt Maier tied it up a minute later on the power play—one of seven Trojan scores with the man advantage. The teams would trade goals over the remainder of the period, as Hallock wrapped two scores around a goal by Blake Parrish, while Mercep and Daube beat Cardinal goalie Oliver Lewis. Host Stanford ended the period with a one goal advantage.

Period two indicated the depth of the threat to the Trojans’ unblemished record. Hallock gave Stanford a two-goal edge at the  6:53 mark, followed a minute later by a score from freshman AJ Rossman, who beat Porter with his team a man-up. Mercep converted on the power play—thanks to a nifty helper from Dauber—but Abramson connected halfway through the period to put Stanford up 7-4. Daube answered to keep the deficit at two, then Mercep cut it to one on yet another power play score. But with 20 seconds left in the half, freshman Jackson Seybold restored the Cardinal’s  two-goal lead with a laser blast past Porter.

Vavic, who has been rotating four goalies in an attempt to replace McQuin Baron, the program’s all-time saves leader whose Trojan career ended last spring, swapped in freshman Sam Krutonog after intermission, a decision that proved disastrous. The Harvard-Westlake High School graduate was unable to record a single save as Seybold, Quinn Woodhead, Hallock and Marco Stanchi all scored. The Cardinal outburst was offset by Sawyer Rhodes in his return to Avery Aquatic Center. The lefty attacker—who played last year for Vargas before transferring to Southern Cal—kept the deficit from ballooning beyond five.

Compounding the Trojan’s misery was a sequence mid-way through the period that was purely a product of frustration. Two-meter man Jake Ehrhardt fouled out, leading to Stanchi’s score with the man advantage. After the USC bench was assessed a yellow card, Mercep then let his frustration show, drawing a game misconduct for punching a Stanford player at the two minute mark.

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USC’s Hannes Daube. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

If not for late-game heroics by Daube, the Trojans would have absorbed a tremendous beating. But, starting from the last minute of the third period, the freshman almost literally strapped his teammates on his back, hitting on four straight goals to bring USC back within one. Daube’s successful conversion of a five-meter penalty with less than two minutes remaining cut the Stanford lead to 12-11, though his heroics would not have been possible without a furious Trojan defensive effort that kept the home team scoreless for almost 10 minutes.

But, victory was not in the cards today for Troy. Abramson beat Porter—who had returned to the USC cage for the game’s final eight minutes—ending the Cardinal scoring draught and sealing his team’s first win over Southern Cal since 2014, a span of eight matches. These two teams will likely meet again at Avery next week, as Stanford hosts the MPSF Invitational, which will include nine of the country’s top ten teams.

Who knows how the national rankings will change once UCLA, #4 Cal, #5 UC Santa Barbara, #6 Pacific, #8 (T) UC San Diego, #8 (T) UC Davis and #10 Long Beach State mix it up over three days on The Farm.