What Pacific’s Big Time Win over No. 1 USC Really Means

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This Wednesday the CWPA will release its next coaches’ ranking and it is possible, maybe likely, that the University of the Pacific men’s water polo team will ascend to the top spot, the first time a non-“big four” squad will have done so in at least six years.

Since 2008 the Collegiate Water Polo Association has released 84 weekly online polls. Of those, over 77% have featured the same four teams atop the rankings: Cal, Stanford, UCLA, and USC. Only four times has a team not among them been ranked as high as second: Pepperdine in 2008 and UC Santa Barbara in 2012. A mere 4.7% of the polls in the past six years include a team not in the “big four” among the top two. It requires little imagination to arrive at how many times an “outsider” has earned the number one spot in that period. Zero.

The Tigers made a strong case for that position with the victory Saturday. The win itself, let alone one with a four-goal margin and a defensive effort that stymied the typically unflappable Trojans, is remarkable. Add to it their other quality victories: Cal by one, Stanford by two, and USC by four in Stockton, meaningful because statistically home pool advantage resides more between one-and-a-half to two goals, not four. This was no fluke.

UOP’s only three losses have also come to traditionally strong sides: overtime to Stanford at the NorCal Tournament, UCLA by two in Los Angeles, and their one bad loss of the year, a four-goal lesson taught by the Trojans at neutral Irvine in October. Meanwhile, number two UCLA took down Cal by two goals on Friday in a defensive struggle its own pool, a victory that can be taken in many ways as less impressive than Pacific’s recent achievement.

It’s entirely possible the Tigers will be placed second on Wednesday. CWPA voters have often punished highly ranked teams for losses, so USC is likely to drop. But UCLA holds firm with only two losses and hopes to be returned to top ranking.

No matter. This will be an historic moment for men’s college water polo, whichever of the two top slots the Tigers enter.

And while four very winnable games remain on the Tigers’ regular season schedule, the Trojans and Bruins face serious opposition in theirs. And that’s before the MPSF Championship tournament begins on November 29…in Stockton. If a number one ranking escapes Pacific on Wednesday, time remains for them to take it in the next three weeks.

One of the great conversation pieces among college water polo fans is, how to smash the four-team blockade at the top of the men’s rankings and championships. The answer, for this year at least, may reside off I-5 in central California.