Two-thirds of the men’s water polo home openers since 2001 have been against schools in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.
But a couple of major developments in the world of collegiate water polo happened over the off-season, and the first nontournament games this weekend will mark the beginning of a new era.
The Golden Coast Conference, which since 2014 has had women’s water polo, opened up a men’s division earlier this year, and the once 10-team MPSF conference saw its numbers slim down significantly as six teams left to join the GCC.
When it was all said and done, Pacific, Long Beach State, UCSB, UC Irvine, Pepperdine and San Jose State elected to leave the MPSF in favor of the GCC, leaving only UCLA, Cal, Stanford and USC.
The champion of select conferences get an automatic invitation to the NCAA tournament. Between the MPSF, the Collegiate Water Polo Association, the Western Water Polo Association and the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, there used to be two spaces that the committee could give out to the best remaining teams regardless of conference.
Since 1992, the founding year of the MPSF, no school outside the Big Four has won the conference championship.
Nearly every year, the two at-large invitations have gone to two of the Big Four schools who did not win the MPSF championship, but with the new conference, there will be a new automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, and therefore, one less at-large ticket.
“The stakes are higher, but the stakes are higher every year,” said coach Adam Wright. “If we get too worried and caught up about that then we’re not worried about the right things.”
Pacific, which was ranked No. 2 for a substantial part of last year, lost by one and two goals, respectively, in two games against undefeated UCLA during the regular season. The Tigers fell to the Trojans by four in the third place match at the MPSF conference tournament after beating them by one earlier in match play.
The committee gave Cal the first bid last year, while the second bid – which many felt belonged to the Tigers – was given to the Trojans.
While six teams left, joining the Big Four in the MPSF, however, is newcomer Penn State Behrend, a Division III school in Pennsylvania that will only compete in the conference tournament and not in the MPSF regular season.
The Lions left the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference in the move to the MPSF.
In addition to the new conference, in February the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel approved some additions to the rulebook.
Before, red cards could only be given to players, coaches or other team officials for disruptive behavior on the bench, but the referee can now award it to a player in the water.
More significantly, however, are the new rules regarding misconduct. A major act of misconduct is largely up to a referee’s judgment, but results in the player, coach or team official’s immediate dismissal from the game.
If a player commits a major act of misconduct three times during a season, he will be subject to a one-game suspension. Additionally, each misconduct afterward will result in a one-game suspension.
A minor act of misconduct is between the ordinary exclusion foul level and the major misconduct level, and includes verbal directions toward the referee. Starting this season, two minor violations will result in dismissal from the game.