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Defending champion women’s water polo adds three Olympians for title defense

After winning back-to-back national championships, it’s hard to imagine how the Stanford women’s water polo team could improve in 2013. But that’s what adding three Olympic gold medalists can do for you. Coupled with a strong freshman class, coach John Tanner has an abundance of talent on his roster despite losing four seniors from the 2012 squad.

Last season, redshirt senior Melissa Seidemann and redshirt junior Annika Dries took a leave of absence to train with the United States national team before heading to London last summer. They both return to the Farm this season, along with Olympic MVP Maggie Steffens, who will make her Cardinal debut.

“They bring a huge amount of experience and the excitement of having won an Olympic gold medal,” Tanner said. “We have so many players — new and returning — that have had really diverse water polo backgrounds and experience.”

The Cardinal brought in six freshmen in addition to Steffens, and according to Tanner, they all “arrived ready to play.”

“We’re going to need to establish a new identity with this group and get used to one another as players,” Tanner said. “There’s a long familiarization process that we’re just getting started with.”

Despite the fact that Tanner gave the three returning Olympians time off during the fall quarter to regroup and get back into the swing of things, the transition has been smooth.

“It was really hard for me to leave [the team], so while I was away, I did everything I could to go to games and send them support,” said Seidemann, a 2013 team captain. “When I came back, I didn’t really feel like I had been away for that long.”

Steffens, who was recently named the Best Female Water Polo Player of 2012 by the Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA), said that although international play and collegiate play can be very different, the team aspect is the same.

“Every team you go on, no matter how good the players are, you have to form a team and create relationships with your new teammates,” Steffens said. “I think we’ve been doing a really good job of that and I’m looking forward to our first game as a team.”

On Wednesday, Stanford played Cal in a preseason scrimmage at Avery Aquatic Center. In the Cardinal’s final dress rehearsal before the season starts, the team established the game-day routine by wearing matching outfits to the pool and meeting in the team room before the match.

“It was interesting because I think for a lot of the freshman, it was shocking to take all that in,” Seidemann said. “But to then realize that we are really just playing water polo like we do in practice is a good balance to find.”

Tanner said it was also valuable for the team to see how they matched up against outside competition.

“After two months, it was great to play a different opponent besides ourselves,” Tanner said. “We’ve been working a lot of our front-court offense and defense and our power-play offense and defense and we were looking to see that reflected in our play.”

Besides the Olympians, the Cardinal has a strong core of returning players. Senior Kate Baldoni will again be manning the net after posting the best goals-against average in the MPSF last season, and senior co-captain Jillian Garton will be leading the team from the driver position. The team’s top two scorers from last season — Kiley Neushul and Ashley Grossman — both return for their sophomore seasons. According to Tanner, his squad is both versatile and dynamic.

“We have people who can play multiple positions, so we’ll be able to change tempos within the course of a game,” Tanner said. “Being able to play at a slower tempo if the situation dictates and also being able to play at a high speed is a huge advantage.”

As the team aims for a third consecutive national championship, depth will be key.

“No matter who is in the water, we know they will put up a good fight and be able to make plays,” Steffens said. “We have seven players in the water, but we’ll also have six-plus players on the bench that can go in.”

That depth will help the Cardinal navigate a grueling early-season schedule. After the season-opening matchup against Michigan next Friday, Stanford will compete in three tournaments consisting of four games in one weekend. MPSF Competition begins on March 2 against CSU Bakersfield.

“It’s been a long time waiting for the season to start,” Tanner said. “The whole fall quarter is just a preamble to competition and now it’s for real. We’re really excited.”

Contact Jana Persky at jpersky@stanford.edu.