Rollicking Start Gives Stanford 2019 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Title over Host Pacific

Stanford team pic w trophy 12-8-19
A first-half sprint sealed Stanford's 13-8 victory over Pacific in the 2019 NCAA final, the Cardinal's 11th title. Photo Courtesy: Shumesa Mohsin

STOCKTON, CA. Almost without fail, championships are won by the team that takes charge. The Stanford Cardinal did just that Sunday afternoon at the Chris Kjeldsen Pool,  racing to a 9-3 halftime lead over host Pacific before rolling to a 13-8 victory in the title match of the 2019 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championship. It is the 11th men’s water polo title all-time for Stanford and their first since 2002.

After the win, his second national championship, Cardinal Head Coach John Vargas deflected the credit directly to his players.

2019-NCAA“Congrats to these boys…they brought it every single day at every single practice and for them to have the game they had yesterday and then come back today and respond the way they did,” he said.

“This is a really special group, and that’s why they are NCAA champions.”

Playing less than 24 hours after a grueling overtime semifinal victory over USC, Stanford tallied six times in nine possessions in the first quarter, holding a 6-3 advantage at the first quarter break. Cardinal Sophomore AJ Rossman delivered a hat trick in the quarter, all three on accurate outside shots.

Stanford Abramson goal 12-8-19

Stanford’s Tyler Abramson lining up a shot in the fourth quarter. Photo Courtesy: Shumesa Mohsin

The game’s pivotal play came early. After Bennett Williams scored for Stanford to give his team a 3-1 advantage, Pacific earned an exclusion on Ben Hallock and called timeout to set up their power play with a prime opportunity to reduce their deficit to one. On the ensuing restart, Cardinal junior Tyler Abramson jumped the passing lane, stole the ball and sprinted down-court. Tiger Djordje Stanic was forced to commit a penalty foul, and when Williams converted the 5 meter, Stanford had a 4-1 lead. The teams then traded goals the next 4 possessions, but the damage was done. The Tigers would get no closer for the rest of the contest.

It’s said that taking care of little things makes big things happen. For the game Stanford won two important categories beyond the scoreboard. As a team they made nine field blocks of the 30 attempts taken by the Tigers, who had 4 blocks, and they made nine steals while suffering only three. The blocks aided their keeper Andrew Chun, who was credited with 5 saves and named to the 2nd All-Tournament team. But the stifling combination of blocks and steals limited the Tigers to eight goals, matching their season low, also against Stanford in an 11-8 defeat at home in October.

Stanford field block 12-8-19

Stanford Field block. Photo Courtesy: Shumesa Mohsin

Playing in his first NCAA final, Chun lauded his teammates “Our team defense was unbelievable, the energy we played with and the field blocks we were getting,” he said. “That’s exactly what you want in a national championship game: everything coming together [and] everyone playing selflessly.”

Hallock, named Tournament MVP, scored three times and finished off a five goal Cardinal run which began in the 2nd quarter and ended early in the 3rd. He was supported ably by Abramson who scored twice, contributed three assists and two steals then joined Hallock on the All-tournament First team.

[On Deck With Stanford Water Polo’s Ben Hallock]

Hallock was beaming after the game, sporting his first-ever NCAA championship watch and talking about how much the championship meant after losing in the 2018 NCAA final game at home. “Personally, it’s everything. I don’t know if there’s something with home teams and NCAA championships,” he said. “For the same group of guys after such a tough game last year to train the entire year…it’s an incredible feeling”.

It’s often the case that the team who scores the most power play goals wins. This game was an exception to the rule. Pacific was a respectable 4 for 10 on their extra man while Stanford had one conversion in 6 advantages. But the Cardinal made up for it with 11 natural goals.

Stanford Chun12-8-19

Andrew Chun, Stanford. Photo Courtesy: Shumesa Mohsin

The Pacific defensive style contributed to this according to Williams, who scored twice: “We know that UOP is going to come into a drop, they want to take away Ben, at a certain point in a big game you just step into it and shoot with confidence and you just know it’s going to go. With the amount of attention Ben draws, we’re just getting really clean looks”.

Afterwards Tiger head coach James Graham was matter of fact while absorbing responsibility for a deflating loss at home.

“We needed to play better together and that’s the coaches’ responsibility,” he said. Graham was also realistic about the challenge his team faced playing Stanford for the title. “They have Ben Hallock, he is extremely difficult to guard one on one and there really isn’t anyone in the nation who can do it. So, you have to have a team scheme to deal with him,” he said. “At times it looked good. We had to make choices and the choices we made today didn’t pay off.”

For a team that averaged nearly 15 goals per game, it was unusual that the Tigers were limited to a season low eight. Graham summarized it by owning his role: “We failed to capitalize on those moments where there were openings in the Stanford defense and we failed to execute the game plan…that’s on me.”

Pacific Pavillard 12-8-19

Luke Pavillard, Pacific. Photo Courtesy: Shumesa Mohsin

Tiger leader Luke Pavillard, playing his final college game, connected for three goals and two helpers, but the Cardinal took away many of the other Pacific weapons throughout the afternoon. Pavillard deservedly made the 1st All tournament team and was candid about his feelings.

“It definitely leaves a bitter taste in your mouth,” he said, working through the disappointment. “Making it to the final game then coming up short is difficult. It’s a tough pill to swallow that we couldn’t bring it on the final day”.

[Pacific, Not UCLA, in as At-Large Team for 2019 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournament]

Stanford met all the challenges this season, sweeping the three tournaments they played: the So Cal invitational, the MPSF conference championship, and now the most important one, the national championship.

On Saturday they avenged their regular season loss to a game USC team in a pressure cooker of an NCAA semifinal that took sudden victory overtime to resolve. And in the final they took on a Pacific team playing in their home pool, then performed in a way that left no doubt.

Coach Vargas has his team on a great trajectory: Back to back MPSF tournament champions and back to back appearances in the NCAA final. They will lose seniors Williams and Dylan Woodhead to graduation, but will have two-time MPSF player of the year Hallock for another season.

Stanford Hallock Vargas trophy 12-8-19

Stanford’s Vargas and his star pupil,  Hallock . Photo Courtesy: Shumesa Mohsin

Hallock credited the legacy of past teammates: “This championship is a huge credit to all who came before us…this is a Stanford Championship, not just us”. When reminded that Stanford will host the 2020 NCAA tournament, Hallock responded quickly: “It’s time to break the curse”.

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