Sept. 25, 2012
SoCal Tournament Central
STANFORD, Calif. - It's practically a rule. Whenever a large group of people gathers for a photo, and after a few serious shots have been snapped, someone inevitably remarks, "Now the goofy photo!"
It's no different at a Stanford team's photo day. The professional, pristine team photos fans see on their favorite Cardinal team's posters, schedule cards and media guides nearly always has a dark twin hiding in the shadows. And out of 35 programs, none has honed and perfected the art of the "goofy photo" quite like Stanford Men's Water Polo. Yet behind the irreverent costumes, poses and pop culture shout-outs is a program whose unprecedented success in the pool is no joke.
"Actually [the costumes] started when we got older, my class, the second we got a chance to be the upperclassmen we started whipping out the costumes and this year we made it mandatory," says redshirt junior two-meter Forrest Watkins, one of the team's upperclassman leaders who was at the forefront of the team photo in 18th-century colonial coat and wig.
"We're a bunch of guys that enjoy each others' company, we're a bunch of friends and that helps us out, knowing we have each others' back," adds sophomore utility Alex Bowen, the 2011 MPSF Newcomer of the Year.
The Cardinal players had each others' backs two weekends ago at the NorCal Invitational at Avery Aquatic Center. After suffering its first setback of the new campaign, a 10-9 overtime decision against No. 1 USC Sunday, Sept. 16, the Cardinal bounced back to blitz No. 3 California for five first-period goals and score a 9-8 win in the third-place game.
Bowen (11 goals) and freshman driver Bret Bonanni (10) combined for 21 goals over Stanford's 3-1 showing at the tournament. Watkins, a second-team All-American last season, added five goals while helping anchor a Cardinal defense that held opponents to 6.50 goals a game.
The strong showing, and the rise to No. 3 in the national rankings with the third-place finish has given the Cardinal confidence heading into this weekend's SoCal Tournament in Santa Barbara. Stanford opens tournament action at 10:40 a.m. Saturday against Princeton at UC Santa Barbara's Campus Pool.
"It really started with the defense," Watkins noted about the Cardinal's showing at the NorCal. "Of course, we've got a bunch of cannons out there in Bret and BJ [Churnside} and arms just like Bowen but I think the big thing's going to be defense and anchoring it down. We did lose [goalie Brian] Pingree so we've got Scott [Platshon] in there for his first year. A big part of last weekend was defense, which I think we could still improve. We're still getting in sync on that but I think it should be good to go for SoCals."
On offense, the production of Bowen and Bonanni played a large role in the Cardinal's success at NorCals. Bowen is coming off of a freshman campaign in which he scored a team-high 53 goals and earned first-team All-America honors, and the NorCal Tournament was his first taste of regular-season action since last November, after missing the MPSF Tournament.
And despite appearances, such as in the team's photo with Bowen clad in purple hat and gaudy cane and Bonanni dressed in a Peep outfit on the edges of the photo, the duo's efficiency is nothing to laugh at.
"It felt great, we started clicking pretty well, although there were times we were going too fast or too slow, but we're really looking to dial it up for SoCals," Bowen said about the opening to the campaign.
Bonanni, along with fellow freshman BJ Churnside, lived up to their preseason hype, combining for 17 goals at the tournament. With 10 goals over the four games, including two against the Golden Bears, Bonanni showed how dangerous he was firing from all distances in the pool. As a prep at Mater Dei, he scored 435 career goals, including 124 as a senior, numbers that helped him twice earn the CIF Southern Section Division I Player of the Year honor. In his collegiate debut at NorCals, Bonanni showed that his adjustment to the college game got off to a fine start.
"Everyone's good, if you make a mistake they'll capitalize on it, so it's really important to be on your toes the entire game or else you're gonna get taken advantage of out there," Bonanni said of his first impressions of the collegiate game.
"It was really intense, both teams took it really seriously, we came out intense, Cal and SC came out intense," Bonnani added regarding his first experiences against two of Stanford's heated rivals. "It's going to take me a little bit to get used to it but it was really fun."
Looking ahead to this weekend's SoCal Tournament, it's that same balance of intensity and levity that the Cardinal hopes will lead it to a second straight tournament title. Last year Stanford defeated USC and California in the semifinal and final, respectively, to claim its first SoCal crown since 2002, and with a team that knows how to stay loose and composed even in the most pressure-filled situations things bode well for the Cardinal.
"If you take it too seriously and you're too serious for three hours at a time it will eat you away mentally," Watkins notes. "It doesn't hurt to loosen up every once in awhile. I know I can't play well if I am super serious all the time, I need to just loosen up and have a good time. You're supposed to have fun while you're playing, it's still a game, you have to enjoy it."
For a program that has won 10 NCAA titles and produced 92 All-Americans as of the beginning of 2012, Stanford Men's Water Polo has shown that it's ok to enjoy a sizable load of success as well.