By Jana Persky
With its 33rd straight win over rival Cal last Friday, the No. 1 Stanford women’s water polo team wrapped up its fourth straight undefeated Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) regular season. The Cardinal (26-1, 6-0 MPSF) now turns its attention to the MPSF Championship, which will take place this weekend in Berkeley.
Although Stanford has captured the last two national championships, they have not won the MPSF tournament since 2006. Last season, the Cardinal took second after losing an 8-7 overtime heartbreaker to UCLA in the final.
As this season’s top-seeded team, the Cardinal receives a quarterfinal bye and will enter the tournament at the semifinal stage. Stanford’s first matchup will be on Saturday against the winner of an earlier match between fourth-seeded UCLA and fifth-seeded Cal.
Stanford has already faced UCLA twice this season. On Feb. 3, the Cardinal claimed the Stanford Invitational title with an 8-5 win over the Bruins in the tournament final. Two months later, on April 6, Stanford held the Bruins scoreless until the final five minutes in an 8-1 victory on Stanford’s Senior Day.
Last week’s game against Cal was the Bay Area rivals’ only matchup this season. Sophomore Kiley Neushul and freshman Maggie Steffens both tallied hat tricks as the Cardinal pulled away from the Golden Bears in the second half to take an 8-4 win. Cal and UCLA will face off at 2:30 p.m. on Friday. In two previous meetings between the teams, UCLA emerged victorious both times. The Bruins also defeated the Golden Bears at the Stanford Invitational by a 7-4 score. On March 9, UCLA made it two for two with a 10-7 conference victory in Los Angeles.
Both possible opponents feature strong offenses, with Cal averaging 11.27 goals per game and UCLA just behind with an 11.17 mark.
Both teams have also seen scoring from a variety of playmakers. UCLA has two players in the top 25 in MPSF scoring, sophomore Emily Donohoe (61 goals) and freshman Rachel Fattal (54 goals). In addition, four other Bruins have at least 20 goals this season.
Four Cal players made the list of top scorers, led by senior Emily Ciskos, who has tallied 47 goals in 22 games.
On defense, the rankings are reversed as UCLA has allowed 6.07 goals per game and Cal has allowed 6.64. However, Bruins sophomore goalkeeper Sami Hill ranks second in the MPSF with 10.35 saves per game while Cal sophomore Savanna Smith is last in the conference with just 5.92 saves per game.
No matter whom it faces, Stanford will fire away with its own roster of dangerous scorers. Cardinal senior Melissa Seidemann finished the regular season fifth in the MPSF with 60 goals this year. She is supported by Steffens (51 goals), Neushul (47 goals), freshman Anna Yelizarova (43 goals) and junior Annika Dries (27 goals in 17 games). Stanford’s defense has also been masterful in recent weeks, holding its last nine opponents to five goals or fewer. The team leads the MPSF with an average of 4.19 goals allowed per game this season.
Senior goalkeeper Kate Baldoni has started in Stanford’s biggest games this season, posting a goals against average of 4.16. Freshman Gabby Stone and sophomore Emily Dorst have also performed very well in the net for the Cardinal — Stone leads qualifying goalkeepers in the MPSF with an average of 4.09 goals allowed.
If Stanford wins its semifinal, it is likely to face USC in the tournament championship. The Women of Troy are the only team to defeat the Cardinal this season, as USC took a 13-10 victory on Feb. 24 — though the game did not count towards the official MPSF standings. But in a more recent matchup on April 13, Stanford got its revenge with a 6-4 victory in USC’s pool.
The semifinal will begin at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, with the MPSF championship game on Sunday starting at the same time.
Contact Jana Persky at jpersky “at” stanford.edu.