The MPSF Invitational has All Water Polo Eyes Focused on Stanford This Weekend

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Stanford's Avery Pool—sporting a new digital display—will host the MPSF Invitational starting today. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

As an annual gathering of the nation’s best men’s water polo teams, there’s nothing that can top the MPSF Invitational, which kicks off later today at Stanford’s Avery Aquatic Center with a match between the top-seeded Trojans (18-1) and #16 Air Force (4-9) at 1:30 p.m. (all times are PST).

The 16 invited teams—exclusively from the West Coast—will play a remarkable schedule of 32 matches over three days, culminating in a first place match between survivors on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. There’s no other tournament like it in American polo, as 13 of the participants are ranked in this week’s Collegiate Water Polo Association men’s varsity poll, including nine of the top 10 teams in the country.

For those who want to catch some of the action, all matches played by the host Cardinals, as well as Sunday’s first-, third-, fifth-, and seventh-place games will be streamed lived on the Pac-12 Network; the link for that site is here.

The tradition of this great tournament stretches back a decade or more to annual NorCal and SoCal tournaments, when East and West would gather in California to sort out which teams had the best shot at being one of four finalists for the NCAA men’s tournament. What made those events appealing to top teams was the opportunity to pad records and gear up for Mountain Pacific Sports Federation competition later in the season. Eastern squads would use the experience to sharpen their skills for the CWPA men’s tournament that would crown the East’s champion, an automatic recipient of one of four NCAA berths.

This all changed with the expansion of the NCAA men’s tournament to six teams in 2013 and then to eight in 2015. The creation of the Golden Coast Conference three years ago—including the defection of five MPSF teams—greatly altered the dynamics of the country’s most competitive water polo conference. Organizing a non-MPSF tournament was no longer as important, much as importing in lower-ranked Eastern teams to pile up wins made little sense when there were multiple non-conference matches available against former MPSF squads.

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Will these Cardinal fans still be cheering come Sunday? Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Luckily, the MPSF Invitational has emerged from this past as the sport’s pre-eminent tournament, overshadowing other West Coast gatherings due to the high-caliber of talent and winner-take-all competition, resulting in an early peek at which squads may truly worthy of an NCAA title.

Last year, the Bruins were the surprise of the field, as they upset Cal and USC on their way to a second straight MPSF Invitational crown and—more importantly—displayed the resolve that ultimately resulted in an NCAA title last December, the programs third in the past four years and eleventh in program history.

Headlining the entries are the Cardinal (9-0). Enshrined earlier this week as the country’s #1 team thanks to a stunning 13-11 victory over previously unbeaten USC, Stanford, seeded third in their own pool, will open their play at 4 p.m. against #14 San Jose State (4-7). #2 UCLA (16-0) will face #15 seed Santa Clara (4-6), also at 1:30 p.m., while #4 Cal (12-1) tips off against #13 Loyola Marymount (6-6), also at 4:10 p.m., as the Belardi and Avery pools will be working overtime to provide competition for all participants.

Rounding out the first day of action; #8 Long Beach State (6-5) will face #9 UC Davis (9-4) at 2:50 p.m., as well #7 UC San Diego (10-3) versus #11 Pepperdine (9-6). In perhaps one of the more intriguing match-ups, #5 UC Santa Barbara (13-5), led by Boris Jovanovic (53 goals), will take on #12 Pomona-Pitzer (12-4) at 5:30 p.m. The Sage Hens already possess a signature win in 2018—an 11-10 overtime defeat of UC Irvine, ranked #10 at the time. The Gauchos scored their own major upset, taking down Pacific—then the nation’s #5 team—a month ago at the Aggie Round-Up. The #6 Tigers (6-5) will also play at 5:30 p.m, facing the Anteaters of #11 UC Irvine (4-7).

November 30, 2017; Uytengsu Aquatics Center, Los Angeles, California, USA; Waterpolo: NCAA: UC Davis Aggies vs University of the Pacific Tigers; Pacific Utility Luke Pavillard guarded by UC Davis Attacker Colter Knight Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne- KLC fotos

Pacific’s Luke Pavillard; a cut above most players in the U.S.Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Looking forward to Day Two, if the seeding holds there will be some compelling match-ups. Cal would face UC Santa Barbara; the Golden Bears already own a 12-9 victory over the Gauchos. Wins would put Pacific in a match against the host Cardinal; despite a pedestrian record, the Tigers—led by Luke Pavillard (40 goals)—are a dangerous team capable of a monumental upset.