Nov. 22, 2012
MPSF Championship Central
STANFORD, Calif. - As most in the Stanford Athletics community sit down to Thanksgiving meals and give thanks Thursday, the Stanford men's water polo team will be traveling to Los Angeles for the MPSF Championship and the most important weekend of its season.
The Cardinal (15-5, 5-3 MPSF), ranked third in the national poll and seeded fourth at this weekend's tournament, opens the draw Friday at 3 p.m. against fifth-seeded Long Beach State (22-7, 4-4 MPSF) at USC's McDonald's Swim Stadium.
The Stanford men, in particular its four-man senior class of Alex Avery, Ryan Brown, Andrew LaForge and Travis Noll, will aim for the program's first MPSF Championship title since 2004 and one of the two available spots in next weekend's National Collegiate Championship.
This season the quartet of Avery, Brown, LaForge and Noll has put in a workman-like effort in guiding the Cardinal's success. Noll leads the group with 11 goals, while Avery has scored nine on the year. LaForge has helped anchor the team's two-meter defense, one which has allowed just 7.25 goals per game, third-best in the conference, while Brown has added a goal despite battling various injuries this year.
The potential to extend their final seasons by one more weekend is an opportunity for which the seniors as well as the rest of the team are very thankful.
"I am approaching this weekend just like I do every other competition. There is no point going into any game and not treating it like a championship game," said Noll. "The quarterfinal game against Long Beach State on Friday night could be my last, so I will do everything in my power to win. That applies to every game that I have the opportunity to play in for the rest of this season."
Noll's reflection underlines the intensity and potential for drama that is synonymous in such a high-stakes tournament. With the conference's automatic bid to the National Collegiate Championship and the lone at-large bid up for grabs, the tournament not only provides a chance for favorably-placed teams to solidify their postseason credentials but also for a seemingly dead-and-buried team to catch fire and capitalize on a second chance.
"It always comes down to the wire at MPSF's every year, but this year is especially close in the standings," noted Brown. "We joke around about how making the NCAA tournament is a more daunting task than actually winning the [MPSF] tournament, but in our case there is only a one-game difference. At MPSF's we need to put together three great games in order to qualify for the two-game NCAA tournament. Winning three consecutive games is something that we have done in the past, and I believe we can do it again."
Stanford itself made a desperate run in 2010 that almost resulted in a bracket-busting title win. Hosting the tournament at Avery Aquatic Center, the Cardinal, the draw's fourth seed, entered the weekend knowing it needed to win out to make the national championship tournament. After narrowly getting through the quarterfinal opener, Stanford turned heads the next day by upsetting top-ranked and top-seeded California, 8-6, to advance to the championship game. The Cardinal came within a sudden-death goal of completing the run but fell to USC in an 8-7 triple-overtime thriller.
The Cardinal will hope to tap into that kind of success this weekend, as it faces a similar road to a title. A win Friday over the 49ers would set up a likely matchup with top-ranked and top-seeded USC in Saturday's semifinals, so a repeat of past history would be welcome for the Cardinal.
Another factor that plays into the tournament's drama is the fact that the MPSF teams have faced each other multiple times already this year. The Cardinal will face Long Beach State for the second time Friday, and if Saturday brings a potential meeting with USC, it would be the third time the Cardinal and Trojans have met in 2012.
"There will be no surprises going into this weekend," Noll said. "We know what we are capable of and exactly what we need to do to win every game."
Stanford certainly brings momentum into the tournament, having won seven of its last eight regular-season games. The most recent of those wins came last Friday, a 12-9 decision over No. 5 Pacific which marked the final home game for the senior quartet. Being honored prior to the game alongside their families certainly motivated the seniors and the team.
"Senior Day was great," said LaForge. "During the national anthem I had a moment where I thought about all the other players I've stood beside during introductions over the years. It's truly been a special experience."
Noll and LaForge added goals in the Senior Day victory over Pacific, adding to the special feel of the day.
And along with the group's success in the pool, each member has achieved just as much, if not more in the classroom. Each of the seniors has been honored for his achievements in the classroom, being named to both the ACWPC and MPSF All-Academic Lists. Avery, LaForge and Noll all possess degrees in management science and engineering, with LaForge and Noll working towards master's degrees in the same field, and Brown already has his bachelor's degree in international relations in hand.
Avery, Brown, LaForge and Noll, all in their fifth seasons on The Farm, redshirted their first season together in 2008, watching as the Cardinal reached the national championship game. Although they came within a goal of reaching the tournament in 2010, this year offers one final chance to reach the National Collegiate Championship. And the chance to get a one-week, two-game reprieve from the end of their Stanford athletic careers is certainly something for which they would be thankful for on this holiday weekend.