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Top-ranked women’s water polo opens season at No. 11 Michigan

On paper, the Stanford women’s water polo team has one of the most impressive rosters ever assembled in collegiate water polo. But championships are not won on paper, and on Friday, the preseason No. 1 Cardinal will dive in against No. 11 Michigan to kickoff its quest for a third consecutive national title.

Annika Dries is one of three Olympic gold medalists on the No. 1 Stanford women's water polo team, and one of two rejoining the Cardinal after a year off to train for the London Games. (Stanford Daily File Photo)

Annika Dries is one of three Olympic gold medalists on the No. 1 Stanford women’s water polo team, and one of two rejoining the Cardinal after a year off to train for the London Games. (Stanford Daily File Photo)

The Cardinal added three Olympic gold medalists — Annika Dries, Melissa Seidemann and Maggie Steffens — to a squad that went 26-2 last season behind 2012 National Player of the Year Kiley Neushul and National Collegiate Championship MVP Kate Baldoni.

Stanford coach John Tanner said he began recruiting some of those players when they were in seventh and eighth grade. Now that he finally has them all in the same pool, the potential for greatness is exhilarating.

“Susan Ortwein, our associate head coach, babysat [Neushul] when she was a newborn,” Tanner laughed. “This is something that has been a long time in the making and now we’re excited about the prospect of it.”

With so much talent on the roster, Tanner’s biggest test may be managing team chemistry.

“We were all the best players at our high schools, but that’s the challenge coming into this program — suppressing those egos and getting everybody to work together as a team,” Neushul, a sophomore, said. “I think we’ve done a very good job of that to this point, but our biggest test will obviously be once we start playing games.”

Tanner will deploy his superstars based on how opponents choose to defend them.

“There are some teams that will say [the best players] will get their points, so I’m going to try to stop everyone else, while other teams will throw everything into stopping [those players].” Tanner said. “We have other people who will step up, so it’s just a matter of having patience and seeing where those openings are.”

According to Tanner, the Cardinal’s first opponent, Michigan, will likely play a wide-open, fast-paced style of play with an emphasis on creating scoring chances.

“There are times when a team like that would just park the bus in front of the goal and just hope to stay in it as long as possible,” Tanner said. “But I think [Michigan] will come out and go for it and play their style, so we’re excited to open the season with them.”

During the fall, Tanner said the Cardinal worked players back into the system by focusing heavily on situational play. Only recently did the team begin working on transitional play, something Tanner considered a weakness during preseason scrimmages.

“I feel pretty good about our front-court defense and our 6-on-5 and our counterattack, and if we just played 10 [situational] possessions, I think we would do really well,” Tanner said. “But I have no idea how we will get from one situation to the next — our transitions could be really shaky.”

The Wolverines bring four games of experience into Friday’s matchup. Michigan began its season with a 15-9 win over Colorado State before falling to No. 3 UCLA, No. 9 San Jose State and No. 7 San Diego State last weekend. The Wolverines have never beaten the Cardinal in nine tries.

But Michigan certainly has some firepower and experience, led by senior Kiki Golden, who has scored 156 career goals.  Wolverine juniors Kelsey Nolan and Audrey Pratt also scored in all four of Michigan’s games last weekend. Senior goalkeeper Alex Adamson mans the net for the Wolverines.

The match will begin at 2 p.m. at the Avery Aquatic Center.

“[The players’ opportunities] over the last 18 months leading up to this have added a lot of diversity within our team, but also a lot of energy and experience,” Tanner said. “It’s been a long time since our championship back in May, so we’re looking forward to playing Michigan on Friday and getting this thing under way.”