The Stanford men's water polo team earned an at-large bid into the NCAA Championship on Sunday night, receiving the No. 3 seed. The Cardinal will face Whittier College on Thursday in a play-in game at Avery Aquatic Center at 2:45 p.m.
The Cardinal, which finished the regular season 21-5 and reached the championship game of the MPSF Tournament, will go for its 11th NCAA title this weekend in its home pool. It is Stanford's first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2008, which was the last time the event was hosted at Avery Aquatic Center. The Cardinal reached the NCAA title game that year, falling 7-5 to USC.
The Cardinal's game against Whittier College, the SCIAC champion, will be one of two play-in games Thursday, with the other, No. 4 UC San Diego (WWPA) against No. 5 St. Francis College Brooklyn (CWPA), starting at 1 p.m. Gunn High grad Gavin Kerr plays for Whittier.
The Stanford-Whittier winner will face No. 2 seed Pacific at 2:45 p.m. in Saturday's semifinal round, while the UCSD-SFC Brooklyn winner will face top seed and five-time defending NCAA champion USC on Saturday at 1 p.m.
Sunday's consolation (third place) game is set for a 1 p.m. start with the NCAA Championship match scheduled for 3 p.m.
Stanford earned its at-large bid thanks largely to a strong run over the season's final month and a half, in which the Cardinal went 11-1. The run started with an 8-6 victory over UCLA on Oct. 19 and continued into the MPSF Tournament as the Cardinal rolled up a 7-1 MPSF record to earn the draw's No. 2 seed. Another key victory over the Bruins, this one in the MPSF Tournament semifinals, arguably guaranteed that the Cardinal would earn the right to battle for the national title in front of a home crowd.
Stanford won its 10 NCAA titles in 1976, 1978, 1980-81, 1985-86, 1993-94, and 2001-02.
On Sunday, USC's 3-0 run in the middle of the third period put Stanford into a five-goal hole from which it could not climb out of and the Cardinal fell 10-8 to the Trojans in the MPSF Tournament final in Stockton.
The Cardinal had its 11-game winning streak snapped and fell just short of its first MPSF Tournament title since 2004.
Bret Bonanni and BJ Churnside scored three goals apiece Sunday, while Alex Bowen added a pair. Goalie Drew Holland made 10 saves for the Cardinal.
Sunday started well for the Cardinal, as Bonanni scored with just 1:03 gone on the clock, but that 1-0 advantage would end up being the only lead Stanford would own. USC, however, would respond with goals from Jeremy Davie, Jon Walters and Mace Rapsey to take a 3-1 lead by the end of the frame.
Churnside halved the deficit 46 seconds into the second period but again USC would answer, this time building its lead to three at 5-2 with goals from Kostas Genidounias and Nikola Vavic. Bonanni and Vavic would trade goals before the end of the half, making it 6-3 in USC's favor at the break.
The start of the second half, in which the game turned, mirrored the start of the game, as the Cardinal scored quickly to start brightly before the Trojans answered with three goals to take control. Three goals in a span of 2:44 for the Trojans from Connor Virjee, Walters and Zach Lucas turned a 6-4 game into a 9-4 advantage.
The teams traded goals before the end of the frame, and in the final period the Cardinal defense dug in to hold the Trojans scoreless. However, the comeback attempt fell short, as USC's defense held up. Bowen scored with 1:57 to go to pull Stanford within three, then converted a penalty to make it 10-8 with 1:15 to go. USC used up its 30 seconds and turned it back over to the Cardinal but a foul turned it back to the Trojans, who ran out the clock for the win.