Playing on the road is tough, but playing on the road to begin conference play against the number one ranked team in the nation is even harder.
No. 5 UCSB men’s water polo (11-5 overall) will head north on Sunday to face No. 1 Stanford (7-2 overall), a team coming off a huge tournament victory at the Southern California Tournament, where it defeated USC 6-4 and Cal 10-9 in an overtime finals win.
“Since they’re ranked No. 1 now, they can only go down,” junior goalkeeper Myles Christian said. “They have something to lose, but we have everything to gain. I’m hoping we can pull off the upset.”
The Cardinal gained a boost of momentum Monday when freshman utility Alex Bowen was named MPSF Mikasa Player of the Week. Bowen had 11 total goals in the SoCal tournament, with six in the final game, including the game-winner with less than a minute left. He ranks fourth in conference in goals per game.
“He had a great tournament,” Head Coach Wolf Wigo said. “We need to be aware and know where he is at all times in the pool.”
However, UCSB is riding a wave of its own, finishing fifth at the SoCal tournament and winning three of their last five games. Victories over Pacific and UC Irvine moved the Gauchos up from an eighth-place ranking.
“It was a great showing for us,” Wigo said. “We upset some teams and had a lot of momentum, which we’ll look to continue.”
The match this weekend will feature two teams with opposing strengths, showcasing a defensive versus offensive battle. Santa Barbara leads the MPSF in total goals with 201 on the year. Stanford, on the other hand, is dead last with 85.
“We have such depth in our shooting ability,” junior attacker Jesse Gillespie said. “Everyone scores; it’s not just one or two guys.”
Stanford will rely on their high-intensity defense, which allows only 6.22 goals per game. The Gauchos average approximately twice as many goals per game with 12.56, so something will have to give in Sunday’s showdown.
“Stanford has one of the best 2-meter guards in Forrest Watkins and they have good shot-blocking, so it’ll be a good battle,” sophomore 2-meter defender Scott Bishop said. “It’ll be a low-scoring game, I’m sure, which means it’s a lot of swimming. It’s whoever wants it more in those kinds of games.”
While UCSB constructs its defense mainly to support its high-powered offense, Christian has been a standout in the preseason, ranking second in the MPSF in saves per game with 10.79.
UCSB may walk into Stanford with a different team, but last year’s games still weigh heavily on their minds. In three matches against the Cardinal, Santa Barbara came away with one big upset by a score of 12-10, which gives them confidence for this weekend.
“We’ve gone up there and won before, so we want to repeat that,” Wigo said.
UCSB’s opening conference match begins Sunday at noon at Avery Aquatic Center in Palo Alto.