As the seasonal harbingers of Christmas arrive to indicate the transition into winter, fall-season college sports reach their championships. NCAA men’s water polo in particular featured a close, well-matched championship bracket boasting several powerhouse teams.
In the opening round games, University of the Pacific (19-5) faced off against Pomona-Pitzer (24-10) while Harvard (23-7) took on George Washington (17-11) to fight for spots in the quarterfinal matches. The Pacific Tigers garnered a smooth win over the Sagehens, generating a 5-1 lead at halftime and bursting forward with an offense-heavy third quarter, putting the Tigers up 11-2 going into the fourth. Turkish-born Engin Ege Colak, a sophomore on Pacific’s starting lineup, hammered in a goal in the first nine seconds of the fourth period, leading the Tigers to a clean 16-2 win and a ticket to the quarterfinals.
The men of Harvard and George Washington exploded into their opening round game with a furious succession of goals. The Crimson’s Austin Sechrest put the ball in the back of the net in the first 30 seconds of the game, but the Colonials were quick to answer with a goal to tie it up early. After goals from Harvard freshmen Jackson Enright and Dennis Blyashov, the Crimson pulled ahead, only to be matched by the Colonials who came back to tie the score 5-5 at the end of the first. More back-and-forth scoring led to another tie at the end of the third quarter, with both teams at 11 points apiece. George Washington held a 13-12 lead with a minute left in regulation, but after a steal and a sprint down the pool, Enright found the back of the net, tying the game at 13-13. The Crimson dominated in overtime, edging out the Colonials 15-13 and advancing to the quarterfinals.
The quarterfinals saw battles between Pacific and UC Davis (22-6) and between Harvard and University of Southern California (25-3). The Tigers fought with gusto against the Aggies, ultimately reaching a 13-12 victory after four quarters of alternating goals. The Harvard men knew that they faced USC’s juggernaut lineup, which includes three players on the USA National Team and two on the Australian National Team. Coming out with fire, the Crimson put up three goals against Trojan goalie McQuin Baron, the first-ranked goalkeeper in the nation. However, USC charged forth with an inexorable offensive conquest, defeating Harvard with a decisive 16-4 victory.
Finally, number one seed UCLA (19-4) made an appearance in the tournament as they battled Pacific in the semifinals to reach the championship game. Bruin attackers senior Jack Grover and freshman Nicolas Saveljic put the ball on net early, but UCLA lost its lead as Pacific returned fire, putting the Tigers ahead 3-2 at the conclusion of the first quarter. The Bruins hit their offensive stride in the second quarter, with Grover scoring once again and seniors Alex Roelse and Max Irving each adding a goal to move UCLA up 5-3 at the half. Putting their slow start behind them, the Bruin squad surged forth with a victory of 11-9 over the Tigers.
The Trojans met UC Berkeley (20-3) in the semifinals, both teams vying for a spot in the finals. The Bears, seeded number two, headed into their first game of the championships with fire, despite the absence of senior Conor Neumann due to a previous penalty. With four early goals, USC made a push ahead of Cal, but the Bears answered with goals from freshman Ryan Hurst and sophomore Safak Simsek, staying within two points of the Trojans in the first. The Cal men found the back of the net four times in the second, heading into the half tied at 6-6. Four goals for the Bears in the third pushed them to a lead over USC, but Trojan freshman Marko Vavic hammered in three goals in response, putting the score at 10-9 going into the fourth. The two powerhouse teams duked it out in the final minutes with the hard-fought victory of 12-11 going to the Trojans.
The championship game featured the Bruins and the Trojans, the remaining survivors of a long road to the NCAA title. The first quarter opened up with goals from USC’s Matteo Morelli and Marin Dasic, putting the Trojans up 2-1 moving into the second. Both teams scored only one goal apiece in the second quarter, entering the half with a 3-2 Trojan lead. Goals from UCLA seniors Irving and Matt Farmer matched a USC goal to bring the score to a 4-4 stalemate, tying the game until Roelse scored the Bruins’ first power play goal to put UCLA up 5-4 into the fourth. USC’s Blake Edwards opened the fourth quarter with a goal for the Trojans, but Farmer responded with a goal to put UCLA back in the lead at 6-5. After a crucial power play save by Bruin goalie Alex Wolf, USC pressed everywhere, leaving the cage wide open for Wolf to put the nail in the coffin with a long-range goal to put UCLA up 7-5 in the final two seconds of the game. The Bruins took home the eleventh NCAA title in their program’s history, with Wolf earning the title of Most Valuable Player of the 2017 NCAA Championship.
(Sources: NCAA, Swimming World, Daily Californian, Daily Bruin)