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Water polo set for national title showdown against UCLA

There seem to be three certainties in life on the Farm: death, taxes and Stanford women’s water polo qualifying for the national title match.

While the above statement is certainly hyperbole, it’s become a reality over the last half-decade, as the Cardinal have played in four consecutive title matches and have won two of the last three national championships.

(SHIRLEY PEFLEY/stanfordphoto.com)

Junior Kiley Neushul (above) has been one of the anchors of a remarkably balanced Stanford offense that has put up goals in bunches all season. However, the Cardinal are again in for one of their toughest challenges of the season in a resilient, stingy UCLA defense. (SHIRLEY PEFLEY/stanfordphoto.com)

This afternoon, No. 1 Stanford (24-1) finds itself in a familiar position yet again, as it prepares to participate in a fifth straight title game and likely represents the best chance for Stanford’s athletic program to extend its national title streak to 38 years. After falling agonizingly short in a quadruple-overtime heartbreaker against USC last season, Stanford will have another go at it this afternoon, this time against No. 2 UCLA (27-4).

“We’ve had a ton of great players year in and year out, and the standard and expectations are always high,” said Stanford head coach John Tanner to GoStanford.com. “You get people who are really hungry and have great coaching coming up and want to be a part of Nerd Nation, and that’s what’s put us in five straight championship games.”

It’s been another relatively smooth ride to the title match for the Cardinal, which have cruised on the back of a balanced, deep offense, highlighted by a pair of 50-goal scorers in junior Kiley Neushul (50) and sophomore Maggie Steffens (50). Their supporting cast has also been one of the most consistent in the nation, with a pair of 40-goal scorers in senior Annika Dries (45) and junior Ashley Grossman (42) and a 30-goal scorer in sophomore Anna Yelizarova (37).

And even though the offense has been putting up goals in bunches, the defense has also been a critical factor in the team’s success down the stretch. The team entered the tournament averaging just 5.91 goals allowed per match, while sophomore goalie Gabby Stone owned a goals-against average of 5.99 that has since decreased after Stanford allowed just two goals to Indiana and eight to California in the first two rounds of the tournament.

The Cardinal qualified for the title match with their 39th consecutive win over Cal, a 12-8 semifinal victory in which Stanford used big offensive surges in the second and third periods to pull ahead for good. Meanwhile, UCLA used a tough, gritty 5-3 victory over the defending national champions in No. 3 USC to cap off a strong season and set up a rematch with Stanford.

Stanford and UCLA last met in the finals of the MPSF Tournament, a match that the Cardinal won 6-5 to claim their first conference title since 2006. Although Stanford has defeated UCLA three times this season, the Bruins are the only team to have beaten Stanford this season and have ridden a stingy defense to its No. 2 spot in the national rankings. Each of the last two meetings between the teams has been decided by a margin of one goal, and neither team has been able to reach double digits in scoring against the other all season.

What many expect will be a defensive battle for the national title in a rematch of the MPSF Championship will kick off at 5:30 p.m. at the Uytengsu Aquatic Center in Los Angeles.

Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Do-Hyoung Park

Do-Hyoung Park is the Head Copy Editor at The Stanford Daily. Even though he is finally able to get into R-rated movies now, he instead chooses to spend his time writing half the sports section every week. Do-Hyoung is a sophomore originally from Seoul, South Korea and raised in Saint Paul, Minnesota pursuing a major in chemical engineering. To contact him, please email him at dpark027 'at' stanford.edu.