UC Irvine, ranked No. 1 in the nation, opens play tonight at 6:30 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation men's tournament at the USA Water Polo National Aquatic Center in Los Alamitos.
The Anteaters face the winner of the 10:30 a.m. game between Stanford and UC Santa Barbara.
The nine-team tournament continues Saturday and Sunday, with the championship game scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Sunday.
The tournament winner earns an automatic berth to the NCAA final four, which will be played at Pepperdine Dec. 2-3. The second-place finisher in the MPSF tournament could earn the lone wild card.
Navy and UC San Diego, champion of the Western Water Polo Assn., have already earned berths in the final four.
Irvine Coach Ted Newland said it's no surprise to him that Stanford is in Irvine's side of the MPSF bracket. But he said he would prefer it worked out a different way.
"Stanford was a tough game for us this year," he said.
Irvine won two of three meetings against the Cardinal and swept its two games with UC Santa Barbara.
But those victories mean nothing now, Newland said.
"This is the hardest tournament of any of them," Newland said. "Any of these teams can get hot and knock off somebody. Every game is a challenge. It's three hard games, no way out. Everyone is in the same boat."
Irvine last won an NCAA title in 1989.
USC and UCLA, both ranked No. 1 in the nation at one time this season, are also considered co-favorites at the conference tournament.
The Trojans, who open with Pepperdine, defeated the Waves, 7-3, during the regular season. But USC is coming off last week's 6-5 loss to UCLA. Stever O'Rourke, a driver formerly of Marina High, has scored 21 goals, including a career-high five goals Nov. 5 in a 11-6 win over Stanford.
Defending national champion UCLA also features Orange County player Adam Wright, a Seal Beach native who attended Long Beach Wilson High. He was named conference player of the week for his three-goal, two-assist performance in the victory over USC.
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College Water Polo
* What: Mountain Pacific Sports Federation men's tournament
* When: Today through Sunday
* Where: USA Water Polo National Aquatic Center at Joint Forces Training Base, 11200 Lexington Dr., Los Alamitos
* At stake: Automatic berth to the NCAA tournament, Dec. 2-3
* Today's schedule: 10:30 a.m.--Stanford (11-12) vs. UC Santa Barbara (6-16); 1 p.m.--California (14-8) vs. Long Beach State (14-11); 2:30 p.m.--USC (18-5) vs. Pepperdine (12-11); 5 p.m.--UCLA (18-3) vs. Pacific (11-12); 6:30 p.m.--UC Irvine (19-5) vs. Stanford-UC Santa Barbara winner.
* Tickets: Tournament pass (13 games) is $20 for adults, $10 for youths and senior citizens. Single-day pass is $10 for adults, $5 for youths and seniors. Information: (562) 985-4949
* Directions to the USA Water Polo National Aquatic Center: Off the 605 freeway, take Katella east to Lexington. Right on Lexington. Center is south of the corner of Lexington and Farquhar.