Fifth-year seniors Scott Platshon, Paul Rudolph and Forrest Watkins never doubted they would play in the NCAA Water Polo Championship. They just figured it would happen sooner.
The Stanford trio had one last shot this year, with an added caveat: the NCAA’s would be held in their home pool at the Avery Aquatic Center. And the Cardinal came through when it counted.
“I feel like a huge battle was just making it,” said Watkins. “Now we have a chance to go out on top in our own pool. I think everyone is pumped up.”
“We have an opportunity to do something special,” he said after third-ranked Stanford defeated Whittier 20-3 on Thursday in a play-in game and now faces second-ranked Pacific in the semifinals on Saturday at 2:45 p.m. “You don’t see many teams get to play for the national championship in their own pool. It’s a big motivating factor.”
Platshon and Rudolph have a long history. Both attended high schools in Atherton, Platshon at Menlo School and Rudolph at Sacred Heart Prep.
“I’ve been competing with Paul in this same pool since age 12,” said Platshon. “This could be the last time.”
Make no mistake: Cardinal players aren’t satisfied they qualified for the tournament as one of two at-large teams. They earned their way with a 22-5 record, including an epic 17-16 overtime victory at top-ranked USC, where Rudolph netted the game-winner.
“The ultimate goal is take home that ring,” Platshon said. “That’s what we’ve been playing for for five years.”
Stanford owns 10 NCAA water polo titles, the last coming in 2002. This week marks the first time since 2008 the team has qualified. Players want to make the most of it.
“Once you’re there, there’s nothing left to hold back,” said Watkins, who scored 29 goals during the regular season. “You have three games to go out on top.”
Admittedly, the Cardinal started slowly this year, losing four early matches. But head coach John Vargas regrouped his players just in time and they responded by winning 11 consecutive matches and reaching the MPSF Tournament final.
“We had a rocky start,” said Rudolph, who pumped in 23 regular-season goals. “But we won some hard-fought games – UCLA and Cal – and that gave us confidence. We started playing for each other and trusting each other.”
Watkins credited the defense for stepping up.
“Our defense has been very good,” he said. “It’s been a group effort.”
Platshon said the offense has also made big strides. Sophomore driver Bret Bonanni scored a team-high 89 goals entering the NCAA Championship, while junior utility player Alex Bowen added 67 and shined on defense.
“This is one of the best shooting teams in the country,” said Platshon. “I go against them every day in practice and it’s miserable. We have too many weapons to count.”
The Cardinal will likely need all of them to accomplish their ultimate goal this week. Players are counting on their loud, enthusiastic fans to provide a home-pool advantage.
“There’s nothing better than family and friends cheering for you,” Rudolph said. “I think it’s going to be a great weekend.”# # #