The Stanford men's water polo team began the weekend ranked first in the nation. After dropping a 10-9 overtime decision to visiting California on Sunday in the third-place game of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Championship, the Cardinal finds itself out of the NCAA tournament.
Stanford (19-5) is the latest causality in what is, by necessity, an unbalanced bracket. The Cardinal has been ranked among the nation's top four all season but since those same four are also competing in the same conference, one loses out every year as the NCAA has two at-large berths to allocate and they've always gone to MPSF teams. Sharing the regular-season title with California was not enough.
Stanford was a combined 2-5 against USC, California and UCLA. But the Cardinal was 3-0, with a margin of victory of 34 points, over three other teams in the tournament.
Sunday's match felt much like the competitive regular-season series, which resulted in a split. The Golden Bears prevailed 11-9 on Sept. 24 in the Mountain Pacific Invitational in Los Angeles before the Cardinal won 11-10 on Nov. 9 in the Big Splash at Avery Aquatic Center.
"It was a hard-fought game both ways," said Stanford coach John Vargas. "It went to overtime and you have to give credit to Cal, they pulled it out. It was back and forth throughout. They made the plays and we didn't. We worked hard all season and put it on the line and that's all we can do."
In a game of runs, Stanford used three unanswered scores to surge ahead, 8-7, on a Connor Stapleton goal with 2:11 remaining in regulation. With less than 50 seconds remaining, Cal gained possession and Olympian Luca Cupido, Cal's leading scorer, connected from long range with 11 seconds left to tie the match and force overtime.
The Bears (20-3) scored a pair of goals in the first overtime period and held off Stanford's charge over the second overtime session to earn the victory.
Stanford received two goals apiece from Ben Hallock and Blake Parrish as seven different players found the net
The Cardinal took control early, jumping in front 4-1 and closing the first period with a 5-3 advantage.
Trailing 5-3, the Golden Bears scored four unanswered goals, the last of the stretch coming from Johnny Hooper to make it 7-5 with 3:40 remaining in the third quarter.
Stanford responded with its run of three consecutive goals, moving in front 8-7 with 2:11 remaining and setting up the exciting finish.
Drew Holland, who became Stanford's all-time saves leader earlier this season, made six saves for the Cardinal.
USC defeated UCLA in the MPSF championship game to secure the conference title and the automatic berth in the NCAA championships.