PALO ALTO, Calif. -- When Balazs Erdelyi arrived in the United States from Hungary to start his water polo career at Pacific, teammate Jason Wensley picked up him at the airport. Wensley took a few attempts to pronounce the freshman's last name, (said Err-day) and quickly dubbed him "Eddy." Fast forward four years and Eddy, the 2012 Cutino Award recipient as the best player in the land, has been a glowing example of the rebirth of Pacific water polo.Absent from the NCAA water polo tournament since 1993, Pacific not only returned to the postseason in 2013, but now they will play for a title, following an 11-10 win against Stanford where Erdelyi scored two huge fourth quarter goals. Center Alex Obert hit on a power play goal on a dish from Kevin Oliveira with less than a minute to play and Stanford's Connor Cleary missed high on a power play try in the waning seconds to finish the match. "He [Oliveira] just finds me and throws it at me and I find a way to tip it in, it was just back to practice except this one was to go to the NCAA championship," Obert recalled.
With the final buzzer, Pacific's rise from conference also-ran to national contender was cemented. The Tigers will meet Southern California for the championship and try and continue their magical run by derailing the locomotive that is the five-time defending champion Men of Troy.
After years of coming close to beating the best of the best, Pacific broke through in 2012 defeating many ranked teams and in 2013 they claimed a number one ranking. They also found a way to win games like Saturday's match with Stanford.
"Winning breeds winning, in 2011 we lost so many one goal overtime games to [MPSF] teams," Pacific head coach James Graham said. "We've been in these situations repeatedly. Finally we got to a place where we are comfortable in these back and forth games, and we have a belief system where we can pull it off at the end."
In the meantime, Pacific remembers an instant classic to earn this title berth. Spurred on by a raucous crowd of supporters that made Palo Alto feel like Stockton South, the Tigers jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the first period, scoring all on the power play. Some four buses of supporters among countless others made the game at times feel like a home contest for Pacific and it had a tangible impact. "It was huge for us, I didn't think there were any Stanford fans, all we were hearing was our fans," goalie Alex Malkis said, a senior from Israel.
Stanford battled back in the second. Alex Bowen scored the opening goal of the game for the Cardinal and he came back with a score inside, in the opening minute of the second for a 3-2 game. The two teams then continued to trade goals throughout the rest of the first half. Two-meter man Goran Tomasevic powered home a goal out of two meters for a 4-2 lead with 6:51 left in the second, only to see Stanford's BJ Churnside answer with an outside shot that slipped past Malkis for a 4-3 game.
Again Pacific answered, this time Casey Fleming hit on a power play, only to have Stanford's Bret Bonanni connect for a power play of his own and a 5-4 match. Pacific would have the last word with Obert scoring a man-up goal in front, foreshadowing to his game winner, to grab a 6-4 lead at halftime.
In the third, Stanford started to battle back. NCAA champions last in 2002, the Cardinal were looking to get back into the final for the first time since 2008. They turned to Cleary who surfaced at two meters surrounded by defenders only to beat Malkis for a 6-5 game. Bowen tied the match ninety seconds later on a power play goal at 6-6. Florida native Kevin Oliveira responded for Pacific on the very next possession with an outside shot, a rare natural goal for the Tigers, and a 7-6 lead.
Paul Rudolph put one home from the outside for a 7-7 match with 2:29 left and then Stanford would grab the lead on a Churnside goal. It was the first advantage for Stanford since 1-0, but again Oliveira responded for Pacific to even the game at 8-8 after three periods.
Stanford looked to have the upper hand in the fourth period. Churnside hit for his third of the day with a bar down delivery to put the Cardinal in front 9-8. After three scoreless periods, Erdelyi came to life evening the game at 9-9 with 5:27 left. Senior Forest Watkins answered the bell for Stanford, delivering a lob to retake the lead at 10-9, with 3:19 to play. From there Pacific took control of the momentum. After the Tigers missed on a power play, Erdelyi hit on a counter attack to even the match at 10-10 with 2:22 remaining. Stanford committed a crucial error late. Bowen picked up his third exclusion of the match, exiting the game for good, after knocking the ball away following an ordinary foul. "We made some bad decisions, we made some passes that we shouldn't have made, took an exclusion that we never should have taken. No. 9 [Erdelyi,] he's a good player, he capitalized on that," Stanford head coach John Vargas said.
That set up the power play and Obert's game winner. Stanford's final possession was just off the mark as Cleary's attempt went high. "It was an excellent pass," Vargas said. "If we take that ten more times, we probably score it eight times, execution on that was excellent."
Pacific hit on all cylinders en route to the semifinal victory, most notably a 7/9 conversion rate on power plays. "The power play was huge for us today, we had some guys step up and score some big goals," Graham said. "I thought our ball movement was the key for us, we were creating a situation where the defense had to get out of position."
That leaves the match with USC to prepare for. Pacific earned its vaunted No. 1 ranking when they topped the Trojans 10-6 back on Nov. 2 in Stockton. USC earned redemption three weeks later, handling Pacific 18-13 in the MPSF semi-finals, again in Stockton. The win kept USC on track for an NCAA tournament bid and eventually the top seed while Pacific was knocked from their number one national ranking. "We were riding high being the number one team for a while and I think that [loss] refocused us and made us more hungry," Obert noted.
Graham believes the unpredictable season with never before seen parity according to many coaches could suit the Tigers. "We've been back and forth with every team, we've had a chance to beat everyone and we've also taken losses to them," he said. "I think the season has prepared us well for this moment and tomorrow's game. It's going to come down to putting our game plan in action for 32 minutes."
Each new step has marked history for this trailblazing Pacific group. Erdelyi's Cutino Award win last year, the number one ranking this season, and now a trip to the NCAA final. Malkis who posted 12 saves in a defensive effort lost among all the goals, said the team won't have a problem putting their history making moments aside for one more day.
"We are not satisfied, not yet," he said.
USC and Pacific meet at 6 p.m. Sunday for the NCAA championship.