Sports

Stanford men's water polo starts out No. 1 in nation

 

Bret Bonanni has been making waves, both figuratively and literally, since arriving at Stanford two years ago.

He was a highly regarded water polo player out of Mater Dei High in Southern California and developed into an All-American as a freshman with the Cardinal.

Bonanni set the school and conference record for goals in a season with 97 last year, two more than four-time Olympian Tony Azevedo accumulated his sophomore year.

While Azevedo already had played in the Olympic Games before coming to Stanford, Bonanni is set to become one of Azevdeo's teammates when the U.S. Senior National Team starts to rev things up next year in preparation for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games.

There's still a college season to play and Bonanni hopes to be part of a championship celebration come December in San Diego, but he doesn't need to worry about playing in Azevedo's shadow.

Bonanni has developed into one of the top players in the world and is ahead of Azevedo's record pace as Stanford's all-time leading scorer.

The Cardinal, which opens the season at the UCLA Invitational this weekend with two games and three exhibition matches, was predicted to win the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation and enters play as the nation's top-ranked team.

By no means is Stanford a one-man show. Seniors Alex Bowen and Connor Cleary joined Bonanni in Kazakhstan for the FINA World Championships last month and sophomore goalie Drew Holland would have been there had it not been for a bout with mononucleosis over the summer.

The trio of players who did play for the American national team finally got a break from the intensity of playing and practicing at a high level when they returned to join their Cardinal teammates this fall.

Stanford coach John Vargas gave them a little more than a week to recover before jumping back into the pool with high expectations in sight.

"They're not quite fit just yet and their timing is a little off but when they do bring it, it's at a high level," Vargas said. "We'll be close this week but by the time the NorCal Invitational starts (Sept. 20 in Stockton), we'll be ready."

Stanford (23-6 last year) hopes to improve on its third-place finish in last year's NCAA tournament. There are plenty of reasons why the Cardinal expects to do exactly that.

Bonanni, Bowen, Holland and junior drive BJ Churnside all return having received All-American status last year.

Bowen, who scored 71 goals last season, has earned first-team recognition his first three years. Cleary, who played on the U.S. national team, returns as fifth-year senior, as does Nick Hoversten.

The upperclassmen are loaded with talent and experience, and with Holland training with the national team until his illness, Stanford can match most teams at any position.

USC beat Pacific in overtime to win last year's national title and the Cardinal was not far off, losing by one in the national semifinal to the Tigers.

"USC, UCLA, California, Pacific, every game is going to be high level," Vargas said. "We'll be getting everybody's best. Being No. 1 is a good thing, but it's far more important at the end of the season than it is now."

Bonanni, one of the top scorers at the FINA World Cup, has 170 career goals through two years, seven more than Azevedo had at the same stage.

With Bowen and Churnside also top scorers, opponents will not be able to key on Bonanni. Besides, it's hard to keep up with him.

"He's always go-go-go as an attacker," Vargas said. "I don't think he knows any other speed."

Azevedo set the school record during his junior year and finished with 332, nearly 100 more than former recordholder James Bergesen.

While scoring should not be a problem, Vargas points to the defense as the team's strength, with Hoversten and sophomores Jackson Kimbell, Connor Stapleton and Reid Chase critical to Stanford's success.

Redshirt sophomore Griffin Bolan and redshirt freshman Davis Clute also will fill important roles for the Cardinal, along with redshirt sophomore Adam Abdulhamid also in the mix.

"The 'second group' also has high expectations," Vargas said. "They are challenged by the first group and are getting better as a result. Practices are really competitive and they push each other."

Sophomores Adam Warmoth, Charlie Wiser and Kyle Weikert, redshirt freshmen Sam Pfeil and Justin Roberto and freshman Cody Smith are all vying for playing time.

Sam Sunde or Oliver Lewis will serve as Holland's backup at goalkeeper.

A half dozen other freshmen are waiting in the wings.

Stanford opens against Concordia and will also compete against Pepperdine, Long Beach State, UCLA, Pomona-Pitzer and Redlands over the weekend.

The Cardinal's home opener is Oct. 4, against UC Irvine.

Stanford's water polo team normally likes to schedule games against USC, UCLA and California in conjunction with the football schedule, but that was impossible this year.

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