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Back on top: Water polo defeats UCLA to win national title

Forget UCLA. Forget USC. Forget the rest of the MPSF conference. Forget the idea that Stanford women’s water polo could be felled for a second time this season.

Because on Sunday afternoon at the Uytengsu Aquatic Center in Los Angeles, there was simply no team in the country that could have matched up with the No. 1 Cardinal in the pool — not even No. 2 UCLA — as Stanford brought home the fourth national championship in the program’s history.

(stanfordphoto.com)

(stanfordphoto.com)

“We’ve had wins before, but it wasn’t going to mean anything unless we took them apart today,” said senior Kaley Dodson, who scored two goals. “I’m super proud of everyone’s performance. I was thinking about today, all the wins in the last three and three-quarters of a year wouldn’t have mattered if we hadn’t won.”

As the season progressed, the ultimate matchup between the No. 1 Cardinal (25-1) and No. 2 Bruins (27-5) for all the marbles had almost become a foregone conclusion. Although it had been the fearsome USC Trojans that had started the season ranked as the top team in the country after slipping past Stanford in a 10-9, quadruple-overtime heartbreaker in last season’s national title match, Stanford and UCLA firmly established themselves at the top of the pack towards the end of the season.

It was the fifth matchup of the year between the two teams, with UCLA having won the first to hand Stanford its only loss of the season before the Cardinal won the next three — including a 6-5 nail biter in the MPSF title match. Although Stanford had the advantage in record, not many expected the win to come easily, as had been the case in the teams’ previous three meetings.

“This championship game, in my mind, started in February with the loss to UCLA,” Stanford head coach John Tanner said. “We owe them a lot for forcing us to get better. They are a terrific team and they showed up big-time today.”

As has been the case throughout the season, defense was the Cardinal’s calling card that ultimately netted them the trophy. Although the team as a whole — including the defense — started slowly and fell behind early, Stanford became absolutely airtight throughout the second half and gave UCLA no opportunities whatsoever to regain its footing as the Cardinal roared back into the match with seven unanswered goals.

“I’m really proud of this team,” Tanner said. “It seems like game after game we get down and have to fight our way back, and so much of that is 5-on-6, time after time making those stops. The story of this team is that they have been comprehensively unified, and we’ve just had an incredible weekend down here.”

Although Stanford jumped out to a quick 1-0 lead on a goal from junior Ashley Grossman, the Bruins were able to take advantage of the opportunities that they had on the inside — a rarity against the stingy Cardinal defense — to jump out to a 5-2 lead with 19 seconds remaining in the first half on a goal from sophomore Kodi Hill.

That was the last the Bruins would see of the back of the net for the rest of the afternoon.

Stanford took advantage of a power play in the waning seconds of the half with a buzzer-beater from sophomore Anna Yelizarova that cut the UCLA lead to 5-3 heading into halftime — the same deficit that the Cardinal had faced at the break in the MPSF title match.

(DAVID ELKINSON/stanfordphoto.com)

Senior Annika Dries (right) was named tournament MVP after her strong efforts on both offense and defense. She notched a hat trick in the final on Sunday while limiting UCLA’s scoring on the inside as the defense twirled a second-half shutout. (DAVID ELKINSON/stanfordphoto.com)

Slowly but surely, the tide was turning in favor of the Cardinal.

“We set the second half up in the first half,” Tanner said. “We get great contributions from throughout our lineup, and that’s what we’ve been doing. And then we turn Kaley loose on them. And we’ve turned a bunch of games by turning her into a primary defender, which is an absolute lockdown. We can press and we can counterattack, and that’s what turns games around.”

With the defense coming out of the break in full force, it didn’t matter what UCLA threw at it. It didn’t matter how the Bruins attacked, nor did it matter if UCLA had a 6-on-5 advantage. The Stanford defense buckled down and stretched the Bruins offense out throughout the pool, giving UCLA no opportunities to move the ball around comfortably or get the ball to the two-meter line for an open look.

Field blocks, steals, saves from sophomore goalkeeper Gabby Stone — you name it, Stanford’s defense was doing it. The Bruins simply had no answer. And as the defensive tide turned, the offense started to battle back and put the Cardinal back into the match.

“I think our whole mindset for the entire game was defense,” senior Annika Dries said. “I remember distinctly a 5-on-6 stop…those types of stops are not only preventing goals but giving our offense momentum. I really think that seeing key people step up in those defensive moments was really inspiring.”

On both offense and defense, the second half was really the Annika Dries show for Stanford, as the senior notched a hat trick while closely guarding UCLA’s Emily Donohoe — one of the top attackers in the nation — and limiting the Bruins’ opportunities on the inside. For her efforts, Dries was named the tournament’s most valuable player.

In the third period, the momentum clearly swung in the Cardinal’s favor, as the defense successfully defended three 5-on-6 opportunities for the Bruins and the offense first cut the lead to 5-4 on a Dries goal from the two-meter line before Grossman emphatically scored the equalizer with time expiring to knot the match at 5-5 heading into the fourth and final quarter.

“The last quarter, there’s a lot of pressure,” Dodson said. “We were tied, and it was my last eight minutes of water polo, and I remember thinking that I’d better leave it all in the pool because it’s my last competitive game and there’s no stopping us for sure.”

With 4:51 remaining in the match, Stanford finally cashed in. After a Dodson steal that wrested possession away from the Bruins, Dries used a perfectly placed shot from the inside to give the Cardinal its first lead since the first period. Just 26 seconds later, Dodson took a powerful shot from the outside to pile on and give Stanford a 7-5 advantage.

Under a minute later, Dodson knocked down another UCLA pass and the ball ultimately ended up in the hands of Steffens, who took matters into her own hands and effectively put the nail in the Bruins’ coffin by zipping the ball into the bottom left corner of the goal.

UCLA never had another chance to start a comeback attempt, and when Dries capped off her hat trick with a breakaway goal with 48 seconds remaining, it was just icing on the cake.

When it mattered most on the biggest stage in collegiate water polo, the Cardinal had firmly established their supremacy and added to their loaded reign of dominance at the forefront of the nation in the sport. The coaches joined the players in emphatically jumping into the pool to celebrate the victory.

Later, in the postgame press conference, a member of the media brought up the idea of this Stanford team being one of the best — if not the best — ever.

Tanner, Dries and Dodson just looked at each other and laughed, almost innocently.

Because after 108 wins and three national titles together, everybody knew that Sunday had been the pinnacle for one of the few teams in water polo history that could lay legitimate claim to that title. And on that afternoon, they stood together atop the collegiate water polo world, one final time.

Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dpark027@stanford.edu.

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About Do-Hyoung Park

Do-Hyoung Park '16 is the head copy editor and a sports desk editor at The Daily. He has previously served as the Vol. 245 Managing Editor of Sports and primarily writes football, women's soccer and columns that he's pretty sure nobody reads except for him. Do-Hyoung is a junior 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.