The top-ranked Stanford men’s water polo team won its first two games of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) regular season this weekend, the second in a battle that went down to the final seconds. Both games featured strong defensive efforts, and the Cardinal showed why it is going to be a factor at the top of the league this year, beating No. 8 Pepperdine 9-5 and No. 5 UC-Santa Barbara 6-5 Sunday afternoon.
Up until the final two minutes of Sunday’s matinee game, it looked like UCSB was going to pull off an upset in these two teams’ first meeting of the season. The Gouchos came out confidently and took an early 2-1 lead, while Stanford had trouble putting shots on goal all day long.
A big steal in the first quarter by senior utility Peter Sefton set up a breakaway goal by junior driver Alex Avery, but that was just about all of the offense Stanford could muster in the first half. A UCSB goal in the final seconds of the first quarter and then another in the second quarter gave them a 4-2 halftime lead.
In the second half Stanford locked down on defense, but still struggled to get anything going at the offensive end. This is nothing new for the team, though. Head coach John Vargas has preached all year that “we cannot always count on our offense, but defense can always be consistent.” That consistent defense kept Stanford in the game long enough to tie it at four goals a piece in the third quarter after goals by senior driver Jacob Smith and junior two-meter Forrest Watkins.
A power-play goal by the Gauchos gave them another lead with 2:03 remaining, but that would be their only goal of the half.
The Cardinal drew two ejections of its own in the final 1:35 minutes of the game, which set up both fourth quarter goals. Freshman utility Alex Bowen added to his growing resume with a pair of clutch goals, including a mid-range strike with 1:28 left in the game, his second of the day. After a timeout with 19 seconds on the clock, Stanford set up its power play offense and Smith netted the winner with four seconds left on the clock.
Going forward in the MPSF season, the Cardinal men know that even though they are No. 1 in the polls, there is a lot of work to be done.
“We can’t get complacent because all of our wins have been very close,” said junior driver Paul Rudolph. Four of the team’s past five wins have come by either one or two goals.
Stanford had a much more comfortable win against Pepperdine earlier in the weekend. The Cardinal came out strong against Pepperdine in its home opener, taking a 3-1 advantage after the first quarter and a 6-1 lead into the half. Redshirt senior goalie Brian Pingree led a stifling defense with some big saves in the first half, and driver Ryan Kent, another fifth-year senior, led the attack with two goals–Kent would finish with a hat trick, and Pingree finished with six saves.
The key for Stanford was the team’s ability to stop the Waves’ power play opportunities and score goals early in the shot clock. Almost all of the Cardinal’s goals came on fast-break opportunities or shots from the perimeter.
The Cardinal will get another tough home test next weekend when it hosts No. 3 UCLA Sunday at 12 p.m. The Bruins are the only remaining team in the top five that Stanford has yet to face this season.