Sports

Stanford stays put for NCAA men's water polo tournament

John Vargas was prepared to move out of his office on the deck of the Avery Aquatic Center for a week had Stanford not qualified for the NCAA men's water polo tournament, which opens Thursday afternoon at Stanford.

Somehow the fourth-ranked Cardinal (21-5) survived one of the most competitive seasons ever in the always tough Mountain Pacific Sports Federation to earn a bid in the national playoffs.

"I don't think I could have watched them set up for the tournament," Vargas said. "It would have been too painful,"

Thankfully he doesn't need to worry. Stanford likely qualified for the national tournament by beating UCLA in one semifinal and having USC knock off Pacific in the other.

"The top four teams were so close, it came down to the final weekend," Vargas said. "We felt we needed to win two of the three games."

No. 3 seed Stanford plays No. 6 Whittier (20-12) on Thursday at 2:45 p.m. The winner meets No. 2 seed Pacific (22-4) on Saturday at 2:45 p.m. The title match is Sunday at 3 p.m., with the third-place match set for 1 p.m.

The Poets, winners of eight straight, advanced with a sudden-death overtime victory in the championship match of the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament.

Gunn grad Gavin Kerr is a sophomore attacker for Whittier.

The five-time defending champion Trojans needed to win the tournament to make it. Seeded fourth in the conference tournament, USC received the top seed for the national tournament.

The Trojans earned the top seed by the margin of total goals scored, the third tie-breaker, against UCLA, Stanford and Pacific, all of whom could legitimately claim the No. 1 seed.

Vargas said in-season tournaments such as the NorCal and UC Irvine Invitational prepared the Cardinal for the MPSF tournament.

"Entering the NorCals we were seeded fifth," Vargas said. "We played fourth seed Pacific in the quarterfinal and beat them, played the No. 1 seed USC and lost in overtime and then played No. 3 seed Cal and beat them."

In Irvine, Stanford played top-seeded UCLA and third-seeded Pacific.

"Every weekend, every conference game, you had to lay it on the line," Vargas said. "Everybody knew we were all trying to set ourselves up for an opportunity at one of the two at-large bids. All those matches prepared us for the weekend."

Menlo School grad Scott Platshon, Sacred Heart Prep grad Paul Rudolph and Forrest Watkins will get the chance to celebrate their final games in their home pool.

Platshon, last year's starting goalie, was beaten out by freshman Drew Holland this year.

"I talked with Scott about it," Vargas said. "He said 'I'll do the best I can to back him up and train like I'm the starter.' You can't ask for anything better."

Rudolph was coming off elbow surgery that cost him a season.

"All the seniors bring something different," Vargas said. "Over the course of the season Paul has gotten better and better. With the elbow, it did not look promising but he did everything he needed to do to come back and play."

Watkins has been somewhat overlooked this season because of a talented group of offensive minded players.

"He's the blue-collar guy, the one who does all the dirty work," Vargas said. "He and Nick Hoversten are the backbone of our defense."

Holland has been impressive as the man in the net.

"The top nine teams in the country are from the MPSF," Vargas said. "To have a true freshman get through that is amazing. It's a tribute to him and how well he progressed through the season."

After last weekend, the NCAA tournament should produce another electrifying weekend.

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