Revenge of the GCC: Pacific, Pepperdine and UC Santa Barbara in Top Five of CWPA Varsity Poll

September 28, 2019; Spieker Aquatics Complex, Los Angeles, CA, USA; MWP: USC Trojans vs University of the Pacific Tigers; Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne
Don't look now, but Luke Pavillard (right) and the Pacific Tigers are very much in the hunt for an NCAA title. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

It was another busy weekend for the CWPA Top 20. Unlike previous weeks, there were no major upsets—though that’s to say that Cal losing to UC Santa Barbara is now common place, as opposed to the previous 15 years, when the Gauchos couldn’t buy a win over the Golden Bears.

Stanford, UCLA, Pacific and UCSB all won this weekend; Pepperdine, which had been the nation’s hottest team with huge wins over Cal and USC, saw its eight-match win streak, all against quality opponents, ended by Golden Coast Conference (GCC) foe Pacific on Saturday. The Waves then dropped a decision to top-ranked Stanford on Sunday.

That three GCC teams are in the top five—and Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) members Cal and USC are not—is a testimony to a potential new normal in the NCAA men’s water polo. That, and Harvard’s win against Cal last year was not such a fluke after all. The Crimson have ridden that success and—perhaps more telling—the disappointment of a 12-10 loss to Princeton in the 2018 Northeast Water Polo Conference (NWPC) title match to a 22-0 record in 2019. Finishing the regular season undefeated will not be easy; Harvard still has one more match with each of its conference foes. But the rest of their schedule takes place at home, where the Crimson last lost a year ago.

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Dylan Woodhead, Stanford stand tall in CWPA poll. Photo Courtesy: Bryan Williams

#1 Stanford University (15-1); since a surprising loss to UC Santa Barbara a month ago, all Head Coach John Vargas’ squad has done is win, win, win. Led by Olympian Ben Hallock and All-American Tyler Abramson, the Cardinal now have a ten-match win streak including a 12-11 win over once red-hot Pepperdine. Prior to the match up sunday at Avery, the Waves ended an 11-year win drought against Cal and last weekend beat USC for the first time since 2005. It has been 27 years since Pepperdine last topped Stanford; looks like it will be wait until next year for a possible end to that streak—unless the Cardinal and the Waves meet in NCAAs.

#2 UCLA (15-1); like their MPSF rival, all the Bruins have done is won—with their lone setback being to the Cardinal at the end of September. Though not as long or as impressive, UCLA’s streak of six straight wins does include Pacific and UC Santa Barbara—along with Long Beach State, Cal Baptist and then a surprisingly narrow 10-8 win over DIII Whittier. Sunday was a match-up in Irvine to face the Anteaters in a final warm-up before MPSF play. The Bruins knew not to take the Anteaters lightly; they are the  only non conference opponent to best them the past five years, and it came two years ago in Irvine. Not this time; UCLA took care of business with a 16-7 win.

#3 University of the Pacific (13-3; 2-0 GCC); that the Tigers have been able to hold the third spot in the polls while sustaining losses to Stanford and UCLA is a testament to the talent of Head Coach James Graham’s roster—as well as the volatile nature of the teams trailing them. A 14-10 loss last Friday to the Bruins was followed Sunday by a scintillating 17-16 win over GCC rival UC Santa Barbara, when Luke Pavillard had five goals and Luis Araya again came up big, scoring the game-winner with 12 seconds left. They’re staying put this week, with a decisive 15-8 victory over Pepperdine Saturday, snapping the Waves winning streak at seven.

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Ivan Gvozdanovic of UC Santa Barbara. Photo Courtesy: Tony Mastres

#4 UC Santa Barbara (17-5; 1-1 GCC); breaking a losing streak that had now reached five-straight, the Gauchos proved their lofty ranky by virtue of a second win this season against Cal—the first time they had beaten the Golden Bears twice in a year since 1981. A ten-all tie at the end of regulation turned into a 13-10 OT win, with Nathan Puentes scoring six goals and Danny Roland racking up double-digits in goals. The weekend was a total success for Wolf Wigo’s squad, as they notched their first conference win of the season, beating Long Beach State.

[On Deck with Danny Roland, UC Santa Barbara Men’s Water Polo Goalie]

#5 Pepperdine University (17-7; 1-1 GCC); in a season of amazing upsets, the Waves were riding high after huge wins against MPSF members Cal and USC. But, that success proved unsustainable, as Head Coach Terry Schroeder’s team dropped two matches this weekend; first, a one-goal loss on the road to Pacific, and then a decisive defeat at Avery against the top-ranked Cardinal. This should not take away from wins the last two weeks against Cal—for the first time since 2008—and then USC after a 14-year drought. There’s no question that the GCC Championship, to be hosted by the Waves November 22 – 24, will be very exciting.

#6 University of Southern California (9-4); the woes of the Trojans continue; a week ago they lost 13-12 to Pepperdine; it was their first win over USC since 2005, a span of 20 matches. Perhaps more telling, last year the Trojans beat the Waves 17-6; the 2019 USC squad is reasonably close to the one that won in 2018, with one major difference: Marko Vavic has yet to play a minute for new Head Coach Marko Pintaric. Luckily for the Trojan faithful, there’s a weekend off before #1 Stanford comes to Uytengsu next Saturday.

[Fight On! Trojan Pride Is Strong—No Matter Where USC Grads Go]

#7 Long Beach State (12-9; 1-1 GCC); the 49ers continue to hang up in the polls—perhaps a reflection of a roster that is considerably talented—and an acknowledgement that Head Coach Gavin Arroyo’s team was slow to get going in 2018 before rolling to an NCAA berth on the strength of seven-straight wins. This weekend was not the start of a new streak; LBS dropped a 11-10 home match to GCC rival Santa Barbara. Next up: UC San Diego visits Ken Lindgren Aquatics Center on Wednesday.

#8 Cal-Berkeley (10-7); it’s been a tough stretch for the Golden Bears; three-straight overtime games, including back-to-back losses. The latest: host UCSB toughed out a 13-10 OT win at home—the first time the Gauchos have beaten Cal twice in a season since 1981. This after the Golden Bears hadn’t lost to UCSB in 15 years. Oh, and Pepperdine beat Cal last weekend; they hadn’t lost to the Waves since 2005. Next weekend MPSF play starts, with Kirk Everist’s team traveling to Los Angeles for a match with UCLA.

#9 (T) Harvard University (22-0; 5-0 NWPC); the question is: who can stop the Crimson? After a successful swing out West for the Julian Fraser Memorial Tournament, Head Coach Ted Minnis’ squad returns home with three more victories—nail-biters against San Jose State and Santa Clara, and a relatively easy win over Chapman—continuing the longest winning streak in program history. Waiting for the Crimson when they return to Blodgett for play next weekend: a trio of  Northeast Water Polo Conference foes.

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

#9 (T) UC San Diego (18-5; 6-0 WWPA); the Tritons are another team on a lengthy winning streak. With a victory on Friday against WWPA foe Air Force, Head Coach Denny Harper’s team has now won 11-straight. Only two matches remain in the regular season; a contest this coming Wednesday against Long Beach State, and then the annual clash two weeks from now against conference foe UC Davis. Can the Tritons keep winning? It’s possible; they’ve already beaten both teams the last times they played, including two wins this season over the Aggies.

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Harvard’s Teddy Minnis. Photo Courtesy: Gil Talbot

#11 Loyola Marymount (10-9; 3-1 WWPA); wins over Eastern foes Brown and Bucknell this weekend were balanced out by a 14-12 loss to Princeton. All action took place at the Fraser Memorial tournament; the Lions can turn their attention to conference foes, including Cal Baptist on Halloween. Head Coach John Loughran will likely not want his players to get a fright from the Lancers.

#12 UC Davis (10-7; 4-0 WWPA); Head Coach Dan Leyson’s squad is rounding into shape at the best possible time. Three-straight wins last weekend led into an off week for the Aggies; up next are three straight WWPA match-ups, starting with Santa Clara visiting Davis next Saturday and ending with perennial conference power UC San Diego.

#13 San Jose State (6-13; 1-1 GCC); like many others this season, the Spartans had a shot to terminate Harvard’s winning streak. But like all the others, they came up short, dropping a 10-8 decision Saturday to the Crimson. Head Coach Bruce Watson’s team enjoyed more success against Eastern contenders Bucknell, Princeton and St. Francis, taking wins over all three in the Fraser Memorial.

#14 UC Irvine (6-10; 0-2 GCC); after a loss to UCLA this weekend—the Anteaters seventh-straight—something has to give for Head Coach Marc Hunt’s squad. Or not; UCI’s next three games are against #4 UC Santa Barbara, #3 Pacific—both GCC contests—and then Cal, who the Anteaters haven’t beaten 2012.

#15 Bucknell (15-7; 6-1 MAWPC); the West Coast was NOT kind to the Bison; three losses in four matches on the swing out to Santa Clara has put a dent in the team’s record. A loss to unranked Cal Baptist was not a shocker—the Bison had beaten the Lancers by a lone goal, 20-19, to open the season—but it was the difference in a successful California trip. All this becomes academic as Head Coach Jack McBride’s squad finishes with five conference games, including matches against contenders Fordham and defending champs George Washington.

#16 Fordham (17-5; 5-2 MAWPC); after stumbling against conference foe Navy last weekend, the Rams have now won two straight, including a match on Wednesday against MAWPC rival Wagner. After a weekend off, Fordham and Iona will face off in the annual Judge Cup match—with a Judge donning Fordham’s maroon and white for the first time since Alex Judge in 2012. Stephen Judge will help his team November 6th against the Gaels—where his father Ray and uncles Greg and Matthew are members of the Iona Hall of Fame, all inducted for water polo.

[On Deck With Barry King, George Washington Water Polo Coach]

#17 George Washington (16-7; 5-2 MAWPC); the Colonials did not take the trip West like some of their Eastern rivals—in fact, they did not take a trip to the other coast in 2019 after having made the journey to UC Davis for the Aggie Roundup in 2018. But, staying home did not serve Head Coach Barry King’s team well. They dropped an 14-8 decision to Navy on Friday, the Colonials’ first loss to the Middies since 2015. This marks two-straight lopsided losses to lesser opponents—GW lost 16-10 to Brown at the tail end of the Harvard Invite. Of concern is the health of Atakan Destici, the Colonials’ brilliant attacker, who did not play in the Navy match. He’s a difference-maker for GW who has struggled this season with an injury.

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Does St. Francis have what it takes to win the East? Photo Courtesy: Joseph Gomez

#18 St. Francis Brooklyn (16-8; 3-2); a 2-2 trip to Santa Clara was a minimal outcome, as the Terriers’ wins came against a Fresno Pacific team that is 6-19, and an Ottawa team that is in its first season of existence.  It’s the 11-10 loss to Cal Baptist that must sting for Head coach Bora Dimitrov; SFC had beaten the Lancers in the season’s first week; winning the back-and-forth contest would have made for a much more successful journey. One huge positive for Terrier title hopes was the return to health of playmaker Will Lapkin, who scored an incredible 10 times (on 13 shots) in a 23-9 win over Ottawa.

#19 (T) Pomona-Pitzer (16-9; 7-2 SCIAC) it was reasonable to question what impact the Sage Hen’s road trip for the Harvard Invitational had on their return to Pomona. Judging from wins this week over SCIAC foes Occidental and Caltech, the answer is: Good! The reality is that it will take a lot for Head Coach Alex Rodriguez’s side to catch Whittier, which is 8-0 in league play. On the flip side, the Sage Hens are solidly positioned in third place in the SCIAC standings—the top four make the postseason—and has games remaining against both the Poets and second place Claremont-Mudd-Scrips.

[Brown’s Felix Mercado and Pomona-Pitzer’s Alex Rodriguez: Growing Water Polo]

#19 (T) Brown (16-10; 2-3 NWPC); just when it looks like the Bears have gotten momentum for a late-season run, they come up short against host Santa Clara, scoring six gals in a dropping a 7-6 decision. It has to be frustrating to Head Coach Felix Mercado; one goal losses to the Broncos and Loyola Marymount spoiled what would have been an excellent adventure at the Fraser Memorial. Wins against Fresno Pacific and Chapman were a positive; now it’s a return to Providence for a big weekend against NWPC foes Iona, Princeton and St. Francis.