The third-ranked Stanford men's water polo team made a very loud statement Thursday in beating top-ranked California, 11-10, in the Big Splash in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation finale at Avery Aquatic Center.
The Cardinal is the hottest team in the nation, winning its 11th straight with one nonconference game remaining before the MPSF tournament begins Friday, Nov. 17 at Stanford.
In the span of six days, Stanford (17-3, 2-1) downed two of the top four teams in the nation to throw its hat into the national championship conversation.
USC (22-2, 1-1) and UCLA (17-3, 0-2) meet on Saturday and that match will help determine the final regular-season standings and seeding into the MPSF tournament, which determines the automatic qualifier into the NCAA tournament.
Stanford clinched a share of the title and could earn the top seed should the Bruins knock off USC. Otherwise it appears the Trojans may grab the top spot.
Cal beat USC last Saturday but the Cardinal lost its conference match to the Trojans. UCLA beat the Trojans in a tournament match earlier in the season.
Stanford has lost twice to USC and once to the Bears. The combined margin of defeat was five goals.
The Cardinal finished an undefeated October and is poised to repeat that in November, though the schedule will be tougher than ever as the top four teams in the nation are also the top four teams in the MPSF.
Penn State Behrand (6-12) joins the proceedings as the No. 5 seed and plays both the fourth seed and top seed on opening day of the tournament.
Meanwhile, Stanford regained possession of the Steve Heaston Trophy, awarded to the winner of the Big Splash in honor of the legendary Cal coach. It spent the past three years in Berkeley.
(Before there was the Pac-12 Networks, the Big Splash would have been played a couple of hours before the Big Game and drawn SRO crowds).
Cardinal freshman and Olympian Ben Hallock scored the go-ahead goal with a beautiful behind-the-back shot into the net early in the third quarter. Stanford eventually built an 11-8 lead and held on.
Down, 6-5, at the intermission, Stanford scored six of the first eight goals of the second half. Senior Connor Stapleton tied it up less than 30 seconds into the second half.
Two minutes later, Cody Smith delivered a great feed to Marco Stanchi in front of the cage and the junior put it home to give Stanford the 7-6 advantage.
Cal responded with the tying score five seconds later, setting up Hallock's highlight-reel score for his 53rd goal of the season.
Freshman Sawyer Rhodes and Stapleton sandwiched goals around a Cal score as each posted a hat trick in the match. Smith added a goal in the final minute of the third to stretch Stanford's lead to 11-8.
The Bears made a run of their own late in the fourth with a pair of scores to cut it to one goal with 3:26 to play.
They had one last chance to tie it up, but the Cardinal defense held and Conor Neumann's shot with seconds left bounced off the cage. Stanford took over possession and ran out the clock.
Senior Drew Holland completed another outstanding performance in goal. He finished the match with 14 saves, including several key stops throughout the match.
Stanford hosts Santa Clara on Saturday at noon. The program will honor its seven seniors in a special pregame ceremony.