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Stanford men open NCAA water polo hopes in Final Four

 

Stanford has been knocking on the door of another in national title men's water polo for the past 12 years. This season, the Cardinal is ready to break it down. There's still plenty of muscle on the other side, though.

Stanford (25-3) won its first Mountain Pacific Sports Federation title in 10 years a couple weeks ago. The Cardinal last won a national title in 2002.

The top-ranked and second-seeded Cardinal opens play in the NCAA Final Four at the Canyonview Pool in La Jolla against six-time defending national champion USC (23-6) on Saturday at 3 p.m. Top-seeded UCLA (27-3) meets No. 4 UC San Diego (16-9) in the other semifinal.

The semifinal winners meet Sunday, also at 3 p.m.

The MPSF dominates the world of NCAA water polo to the extent that no team outside of California has ever won a championship. Pepperdine was a member of the MPSF when it won the title in 1997.

It's why the MPSF gets two at-large spots in the NCAA tournament and why all three conference teams are still playing this weekend. The Trojans beat Whittier, 19-6, in a play-in game last weekend.

The Cardinal beat USC in both of their meetings this year, though it took overtime to win the first contest.

The Bruins beat Stanford in two of their three meetings. The aggregate score was 22-20.

The Cardinal, which finished third in last year's tournament, needs to beat the Trojans a third time to advance to its first title match since 2008.

"Every game is high level," Stanford coach John Vargas said. "We know we're going to get everybody's best game."

Stanford enters the weekend on an eight-game winning streak, and has won 11 of 12 overall.

Senior Alex Bowen and junior Bret Bonanni may be the best scoring duo in school history. They have combined to score 500 career goals. James Bergeson and Jody Campbell, teammates for three years between 1979-81, combined for 446 goals.

Bowen and Bonanni were named first team All-MPSF performers as Stanford placed six on the all-conference team, its most since 2007.

BJ Churnside and Drew Holland were selected to the second team and Conner Cleary and Nick Hoversten were honorable mention.

The Cardinal is making back-to-back appearances for the first time since it went five straight years from 2001 to 2005. Stanford is 4-2 against the NCAA championship field (2-0 vs. USC, 1-2 vs. UCLA, 1-0 vs. UC San Diego).

Stanford has scored at least 20 goals in 10 games this season. In the previous 10 years, the Cardinal reached that mark on 12 total occasions. Stanford has scored 422 total goals.

Stanford's 25 wins are its most since going 27-1 and winning a national championship in 1994. Stanford reached 20 wins for the 29th time in its history, the eighth time under Vargas.

All games in La Jolla will be streamed on NCAA.com.

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