The Stanford men’s water polo team took first place in the SoCal Tournament this weekend, avenging its only two losses of the season in the process. The No. 4 Cardinal (7-2) went 4-0 in the two-day event, winning two games Saturday and two on Sunday. The final three victories came by a combined four goals as Stanford ended USC’s nine-year title run at the prestigious tournament held jointly at Long Beach State and Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base.
The Cardinal easily took care of Princeton 14-3 in Saturday’s first game before narrowly escaping a tough 7-6 match against Pepperdine in the nightcap. In a rematch of the NorCal Invitational semifinal two weeks ago, Stanford defeated previously unbeaten No. 1 USC by a score of 6-4. The Cardinal finished off the tournament with a huge 10-9 overtime win against No. 3 California in the championship match Sunday night.
Pepperdine, a much-improved team from last season, gave Stanford all it could handle in the first of three consecutive close games. The score was tied 3-3 at halftime and 5-5 after three quarters, with neither team taking a lead of more than one goal in the entire game. After the teams traded goals in the fourth, senior utility Peter Sefton netted what turned out to be the game winner. Freshman utility Alex Bowen paced the team with three goals, senior driver Jacob Smith had two and Sefton and sophomore two-meter Forrest Watkins each had one.
The win set up a semifinal game with USC, while Cal and UCLA matched up in the other semifinal. This was an identical bracket to the one that played out two weeks ago at the NorCal Invitational, but this time the results were very different. In their last meeting, Stanford fell hard to USC by a final score of 12-5. Stanford was never really in the game, trailing 4-0 after the first quarter and 10-3 at halftime.
This time the Cardinal was able to stifle USC’s offense, keeping Stanford within reach throughout the contest. After trailing by a goal at halftime, the Cardinal dominated the second half, outscoring the Trojans 4-1 to pull off the upset.
When asked about the difference between the two meetings, Sefton said, “The defense was much, much better.” Watkins was even more blunt—he responded to the same question with just one word, “Defense.”
In a game where Stanford scored only six goals, the fewest the team has scored in any game of the tournament, defense was indeed the key. Stanford held USC to only one shot on goal in the first quarter and only 11 in the entire game. This was a major improvement considering USC scored 12 goals in their previous meeting.
Sefton, who has stepped up as a vocal leader in his senior year, commented on the team’s tenacity in preventing goals.
“Our intensity and effort on defense were much higher compared to two weeks ago,” he said.
Stanford’s six goals came from five different players; Watkins was the only Cardinal player with more than one. Three goals came from the usual suspects—Sefton, Smith and junior driver Paul Rudolph had a goal apiece—but the other three goals came from some unexpected sources.
Sefton attributed that to the USC defense.
“Against a team like USC, you have to take what they give you,” he said. “That’s why there were goals from people who do not usually score.”
The defensive-minded Andrew LaForge may have been the last person Stanford expected to score, but he did just that with a crucial third quarter goal, his first of the season and just his seventh in three years on the Farm.
Watkins, on the other hand, has been a pleasant surprise on the offensive end this year. He has already surpassed his goal-scoring total of seven from last year. Watkins said his scoring output have a lot to do with the hard work he put in this offseason, as well as a new mindset.
“I was a little nervous my first year, but now I just go for it,” he said.
Bowen asserted himself as a force to be reckoned with in the championship game against Cal. The utility player scored six of Stanford’s 10 goals, including the only goal of the overtime period, earning him MPSF Player of the Week honors. He carried the offensive load after Smith, a second-team All-American in 2010, had to leave the game early with a gash over his eye.
“It was really nice to see him come in and play well after Jacob went out,” Watkins said. “He is a huge asset. He’s going to be big for us.”
Junior driver Alex Avery, Smith and Watkins also scored in a game that was close throughout. California had come from behind to beat Stanford in the third-place game of the NorCal Invitational, but this time Stanford pulled through, even after giving up its 5-3 halftime lead and going into overtime.
Stanford will look to build on the success from this weekend as it heads to Avery Aquatic Center for the first time this season to host Pepperdine on Friday at 7 p.m.