Nov. 24, 2009

 

By Trevor Freeman
Special to NCAA.com


Two teams officially punched their ticket and will dance on the grandest stage in American water polo.  One will take a cross-country flight while the other will take a familiar stroll across campus.  Eighth-ranked Loyola Marymount arrives with the experience of having been in this moment before along with a goalie who might be the nation’s best.  The NCAA Final Four will be at Princeton and the Tigers will not be observing from the bleachers.  Princeton qualified for the festivities and that should set the scene for bedlam as the Tigers will be backed by a crowd full of boisterous supporters when the Final Four party commences.

While eighth-ranked Loyola Marymount entered the WWPA Tournament as the presumptive favorites, winning that title and getting back to the NCAA Final Four was not an easy chore.  Tenth-ranked UC San Diego gave the Lions all they wanted in what was a hotly contested championship affair.  The margin was 5-4 as the Lions grabbed a lead they would never relinquish when Max Schlegel scored the game-winner with 4:01 left in the fourth quarter.  Andy Stevens was once again electric when it mattered most.  Crowned as WWPA Player of the Year for a second straight season earlier in the week, the junior added his second straight WWPA Tournament MVP as he had fourteen saves including four in the fourth quarter to lead the Lions.  This performance came on the heels of a fourteen save effort in the semifinals against thirteenth-ranked Santa Clara which included two coming on five-meter penalty shots.  

Loyola Marymount will enter the NCAA Tournament as a very dangerous team.  Last season, they lost to Stanford in a 6-5 classic.  The Lions have an experienced core returning from that team as Stevens, Tibor Forai and Edgaras Asajavicius were all key contributors.  Andrew Aki has been outstanding all season long as well and gives the Lions another dangerous weapon heading into a Final Four clash.

The WWPA Tournament was not without surprises and it happened on day one when Whittier upset fourteenth-ranked Air Force.  Casey Regehr has been one of the best goalies in the country this season and he submitted one of his finest performances against the Falcons.  Regehr had twenty-one saves including one in the final moments to preserve the Whittier victory.  That game marked the sixth time that Regehr had over twenty saves in a game this season.

In our CWPA preview, we highlighted the Tigers of Princeton and noted that this might be the year that Navy’s stranglehold on the East ends.  On Sunday afternoon, eighteenth-ranked Princeton lived up to that potential by stunning twelfth-ranked Navy and grabbing the CWPA’s automatic bid into the NCAA Final Four.  It is not often that a scoreless quarter can provide for riveting drama, but that happened in this championship game as Princeton was able to make a Chris Cottrell goal with 2:12 left in the third quarter stand up for a 5-4 victory.  Matt Hale led all scorers with three goals while Mike Merlone chipped in eight saves.  Princeton senior Douglas Wigley was crowned tournament MVP. While the Tigers will be heavy underdogs entering their Final Four matchup against one of the California powers, one cannot discount the fact that the game will be in their pool.  Princeton last made the Final Four in 2004 and they did not go quietly into the night as they took the eventual NCAA Champion UCLA Bruins to overtime before succumbing 7-5.

The CWPA Tournament was the home of the best game of the weekend as Johns Hopkins defeated Fordham in a quadruple overtime thriller in the first round that left observers speechless.  The scene during the overtime periods was absolutely surreal.  Brown and Bucknell had the next game and instead of warming up, you could see the two squads watching a contest that nobody wanted to see end.  Fordham and Johns Hopkins are both teams on the rise as the Rams only lose one key component in lefty Andrew Dentinger while the Blue Jays bring back a roster headlined by the last two CWPA Southern Division Rookie of the Years in Alex Whittam and Mark Strickland.

Down 4-2 at halftime, third-ranked Stanford was losing “The Big Splash” to second-ranked California in front of their home crowd.  With the game slipping away, Stanford’s defense locked down the Golden Bears and found the firepower to overcome that early deficit and score an 8-6 win.  Jimmie Sandman was tremendous for the Cardinal in the victory as he notched thirteen saves to lead Stanford.  While this win was huge, there is a possibility that these two teams may clash in a game that is much more important.  Should seedings hold to form in the MPSF Tournament, Stanford and California would face off in the MPSF semifinals.  That game would not only be for a berth into the MPSF Championship game, but it would also have heavy implications for the NCAA at-large bid which will come down to these two teams.

Top-ranked USC clinched an undefeated season and MPSF regular season championship with a 15-9 victory on Saturday over seventh-ranked UC-Irvine.  J.W. Krumpholz, Justin Rappel and Peter Kurzeka each had a hat trick in leading the Trojans to a victory that probably punches their NCAA ticket.  USC was very impressive in defeating a good Anteaters squad as the game was over by halftime with USC holding an 11-4 lead.  USC’s postseason journey begins next Friday against an unlikely opponent who scored a Senior Day shocker in Stockton.

James Graham posted the biggest victory of his young coaching career and it was a player he brought with from Santa Rosa Junior College in his first recruiting class that led the way.  Joey Gullikson scored three goals and dished out two assists in leading sixteenth-ranked Pacific to a 9-8 upset victory over sixth-ranked Long Beach State.  Down 8-6 entering the fourth quarter, Pacific scored three times while pitching a shutout.  Senior David Andrus was key in that happening as he made four of his nine saves in that period to help secure the victory.  This win means that Pacific has earned the eighth spot in the MPSF Tournament which begins next week.  The Tigers are a team on the rise and this is a step in the process towards becoming a national contender.    

Player of the Week

Douglas Wigley, Princeton, Sr., Andy Stevens, Loyola Marymount, Jr., and Jimmie Sandman, Stanford, Sr.:  All three players were magnificent this weekend.  Wigley and Stevens led their respective squads to NCAA Tournament bids while Sandman dominated in water polo’s greatest rivalry matchup.

Game to Watch

The MPSF Tournament is this weekend and it will be riveting theatre.  The host squad is top-ranked USC and they will be favored to bring home the crown.  Second-ranked California and third-ranked Stanford will likely face off in a semifinal clash that could be one for the ages.  Expect two outstanding teams to attack each other with a desperate ferocity knowing that their postseason lives are on the line.