USC Win Over Stanford Elevates UCLA to Top of CWPA Men’s Water Polo Poll

UCLA Athletics - 2019 UCLA Women's Water Polo versus the University of Pacific Tigers, Sunset Recreational Center, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA. March 29th, 2019 Copyright Don Liebig/ASUCLA 190329_WWP_0149.NEF
Should anyone be surprised that UCLA—and Adam Wright—is on top again? Photo Courtesy: Don Liebig

There’s no question that the 2019 season is one of the most volatile in recent memory, and this uncertainty is reflected in the Collegiate Water Polo Association’s Top 20 poll. Stanford had ten-straight wins going into last Saturday’s match in Los Angeles against a desperate USC team. A 9-8 loss to the Trojans knocked the Cardinal down a notch, allowing UCLA—a winner Saturday at home against Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) rival Cal—to ascend to the top.

USC needed a signature win in a season that appeared to be slipping away—and it moved them up from seventh to fourth, in the process leap-frogging UC Santa Barbara. After enduring a five-game losing streak, the Gauchos have three-straight wins. Pacific, with a three-game win streak, has held firm in third for the sixth straight week.

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

But the team that won out this week is UCLA. Since a loss to the Cardinal at the end of September, the Bruins have reeled off seven-straight, including a gut-check win last weekend in Los Angeles over the Golden Bears. Now, they’ll seek to retain the top when they host the Trojans on Saturday in a match-up to be televised on the Pac-12 Network.

One team that has yet to lose in 2019 is Harvard; with a sweep of three Northeast Water Polo Conference opponents last weekend, the Crimson is now 25-0 and on the brink of becoming the East’s first-ever undefeated team.

#1 UCLA (16-1; 1-0 MPSF); you can NEVER count out an Adam Wright-coached team, especially one backstopped by the top netminder in the country. The Bruins and goalie Alex Wolf demonstrated their resilience on Saturday holding off a Cal squad that frantically sought to equalizer by game’s end. That UCLA has emerged in the poll’s top spot is a testimony to the talent pipeline terminating in Westwood. Now the Bruins get to defend their success against their arch-rivals, the Trojans—making Saturday’s match-up in Spieker Aquatics Center must-see TV.

#2 Stanford (15-2; 0-1 MPSF); with one loss the narrative of a Cardinal run to another NCAA final was temporarily sidetracked—though Head Coach John Vargas’ team has an opportunity this Saturday to rewrite that script against the Golden Bears. To speculate that Stanford was ripe for the loss—dropping a decision to the defending national champions in their pool does not qualify as an upset—doesn’t hold. This season Vargas’ side had come out on top in three previous contests decided by one goal; if they lose to Cal at home in the annual Big Splash on Saturday at home then there’s a problem.

#3 Pacific (14-3; 3-0 GCC); after a non-conference loss three weeks ago at UCLA, Pacific has won GCC matches against UC Santa Barbara, Pepperdine and Long Beach State. Left on the Tigers’ regular season schedule are UC Irvine this Saturday and San Jose State next, followed by the GCC tournament at Pepperdine. The signs look good for a deep run in the postseason—especially if the NCAA awards a GCC team an at-large bid for the first-time ever.

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Don’t look now but Jake Ehrhardt and USC are heating up at the right time. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

#4 USC (11-4; 1-0 MPSF); is it too dramatic to say that Marin Dasic saved the Trojans’ season? A hat trick by the attacker from Croatia as he and four other graduating seniors were being feted at home made for a perfect storm against top-ranked Stanford. That, and a solid victory over San Jose State on Sunday have put Head Coach Marko Pintaric’s squad in good stead going into Saturday’s match-up against UCLA. How would the narrative around the Trojans change if they beat the number one team in the country on consecutive weeks?

#5 UC Santa Barbara (18-5; 2-1 GCC); just when everything seemed to be falling back into place on the Gauchos’ charmed season, a pothole has appeared that may swallow all their success up. Or not. Despite the recently announced NCAA infractions against the program, this season remains intact—and the drive for the programs first NCAA berth since 1991 is very much alive. If Head Coach Wolf Wigo’s team wins the GCC tournament, they’re going to the national championship—and they’ve proven they’ve got the talent to win. Regular season games against San Jose State this Saturday and Pepperdine are important for seeding, as the conference’s top two teams get a bye into the second round.

#6 Pepperdine (20-7; 2-1 GCC); the same pathway to an NCAA berth exists for the Waves, and they will play UCSB, who they’ve already lost to three times, in their last regular season match. Before that there’s a game Saturday against a dangerous Long Beach State squad; in fact, the parity in the GCC this year makes it almost impossible to pick who’s going to capture the conference’s automatic qualifier. If three MPSF teams are in the top four—as is currently the case—all three will likely go. So Pepperdine and UCSB must win their conference tournament to get in to NCAAs.

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

#7 University of California (11-8; 0-1); unlike the Trojans, the Golden Bears could not turn their season around last week against UCLA, dropping a tense 9-8 decision. This week presents a new opportunity, as Cal and Stanford will clash in the annual “Big Splash” contest. Head Coach Kirk Everist’s team has yet to play their nemesis; a win here would change the narrative which has seen the Golden Bears compile their worst record in Everest’s two decades leading the program.

#8 Long Beach State (14-11; 1-2 GCC); a split last weekend pointed to the 49ers challenges as the season winds down. An overtime loss against Cal became the fourth one-goal loss Head Coach Gavin Arroyo’s team has suffered in 2019. All came against opponents ranked in the top-five; Stanford, Pacific, UC Santa Barbara and now Cal. LBS beat cross-town rival Long Beach City 14-7 on Sunday; will that version of the 49ers show up Saturday for a crucial match against GCC rival Pepperdine?

#9 Harvard University (25-0; 8-0 NWPC); the victories keep coming for a Crimson program that has proven to be the East’s best. With home matches this weekend against conference rivals Brown and MIT, Head Coach Ted Minnis’ squad has a chance for a season unmatched in Eastern history. Brown may be the biggest threat to a perfect season in Cambridge; hard to see how the Bears go into Blodgett Pool on Saturday and surprise a Harvard squad that has an unmatched will to win.

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UC San Diego’s Jack Turner. Photo Courtesy: Cathryn Hayne

#10 UC San Diego (18-6; 6-0 WWPA); A narrow loss last Wednesday to Long Beach State—who the Tritons beat in the 2018 NCAA quarterfinals—does nothing to damper Head Coach Denny Harper’s hopes of getting back to the national championship in Jack Turner’s final year in La Jolla. What will impact that hope is how his team performs on Saturday against UC Davis. These two teams have met in the past four WWPA finals—so there’s a good chance they’ll meet in the 2019 title match. First though, they meet once more in the regular season; the Tritons have won two previous meetings this season; will the Aggies finally be able to solve UCSD keeper Turner?

#11 UC Davis (11-7; 5-0 WWPA); this has been a memorable season for Head Coach Dan Leyson squad. For the first time since anyone can remember, they beat Cal. That alone will make this season special. BUT, toppling the Tritons would make for a memorable season as well; and catching them before the WWPA playoffs start might not only stretch a modest Aggie winning streak; it would give Leyson’s club a beneficial boost right before the postseason. First though, there’s a strong Loyola Marymount club to play Thursday in another conference contest.

#12 Loyola Marymount (12-9; 5-1 WWPA); the Lions are a potential gatecrasher to the Aggies / Tritons finals party. With big conference wins last week over Cal Baptists and Concordia, LMU is in the running to be the second seed in the WWPA tournament. They’ve already beaten UCSD in a non-conference match-up; a win over UC Davis will put Head Coach John Loughran’s team in prime position for a deep post-season run.

#13 San Jose State (7-15; 1-2 GCC); five years ago Head Coach Bruce Watson’s club was key to the launch of a men’s water polo bracket for the GCC. The Spartans first three years showed steady improvement; the last two haven’t been as successful. 18 losses last season—and no conference wins—and 15 losses this season. There’s been one GCC win in 2019—against UC Irvine—and an opportunity for two more before the conference tournament. Saturday, the Spartans host a UCSB squad that has distractions to block out. A week later they will invite Pacific to San Jose; beating one (or both) of the GCC’s best would be a huge step forward for the Spartans.

[NCAA Imposes Level II Violations on UC Santa Barbara Men’s Water Polo program]

#14 Bucknell (17-7; 8-1 MAWPC); despite some ups and downs, the Bison season remains filled with promise. They lead their conference and—in Rade Joksimovic—have the East’s leading scorer. Matches this weekend in Lewisburg against Johns Hopkins and reigning conference champs George Washington will go a long way to determine just how ready Head Coach Jack McBride’s squad is for the post-season.

#15 UC Irvine (6-11; 0-3 GCC); the Anteaters’ string of futility has reached eight straight. And there’s no relief in sight. Matches against Pacific on Saturday and Cal Sunday should extend the losing; next Wednesday Concordia comes to town and offers a possibility of a win for a beleaguered program.

#16 (T) California Baptist (13-14; 3-3 WWPA); two matches this weekend—Friday against conference foe Concordia and Sunday against non-conference opponent Redlands—give the Lancers a chance to finish the regular season on a strong note.

#16 (T) Fordham (18-5; 5-2 MAWPC); after a decisive win Wednesday in the annual Judge Cup competition with Iona—with Fordham alumnus Chris Judge presenting the cup to the victorious Rams—Head Coach Bill Harris’ team travels to Maryland for matches with conference rivals George Washington, Navy and Johns Hopkins. This has been a breakout season for the Rams, who are very much in the picture for a conference title this season. A win over two-time reigning champs GW and an up and coming Navy squad would demonstrate how competitive they are for an NCAA berth—the program’s first ever.

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James Thygesen leads the Bruins with 66 goals and 44 assists.

#18 Brown (19-10; 5-3 NWPC); a string of 10 wins in their past 12 matches has transformed the Bears season, and positioned them as a legitimate threat to Harvard’s grip on the conference. With two matches left in the regular season—Saturday versus MIT and Harvard in Cambridge—Head Coach Felix Mercado’s squad represents the biggest hope for ending the Crimson’s regular season perfection. Last year, Brown beat Harvard in the regular season, so the Bears should not be taken lightly.

#19 George Washington (18-7; 7-2 MAWPC); this is the penultimate weekend of the season for the Colonial. Matches against Fordham, Wagner and Bucknell will determine seeding for the postseason. Head Coach Barry King’s team is currently trailing the Bison and just ahead of the Rams. The great hope for GW is that Atakan Destici is healthy; based upon last week’s success against Navy and Hopkins—when he scored six goals in wins against MAWPC opponents—King must feel much better about his chances.

#20 Princeton (13-14; 5-3 NWPC); the Tigers are in line for their lowest win total in the past decade—a 14-15 record in 2007—but all that matters is that they find a way to be the second or third seed in their conference tournament. Wins against Iona and St. Francis Brooklyn, who Princeton will host this weekend, will ensure that Head Coach Dusty Litvak’s team avoids Harvard in the second round of the NWPC tournament. Litvak’s squad has ample talent; can they finish strong and then upset the Crimson in the postseason for the second straight year?