By Jana Persky
The matchup that everyone expected all season has finally arrived, as No. 2 Stanford will take on No. 1 USC in the NCAA women’s water polo national championship game tomorrow.
In order to win its third straight national championship, the Cardinal (29-2) will have to beat the Women of Troy (26-1) in the fourth meeting between the teams this season. After the teams split their two regular-season matchups, USC defeated Stanford 11-7 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) final. Stanford and USC have been the top two teams in the national rankings all season and neither team lost to any other squad all year.
Stanford, the two-time defending champions, advanced to the title game by knocking off No. 3 UCLA 5-3 in the semifinals.
Goalkeeper Kate Baldoni anchored a tremendous defensive effort by the Cardinal. The reigning NCAA tournament MVP made 12 saves to shut down the powerful Bruins attack, which came into the game averaging 10.7 goals per game.
“I have to give it all to the defense, they had some great shot blocks. Mel [Seidemann] had one, Kaley [Dodson] had one, I honestly don’t remember touching the ball the whole first half,” Baldoni said of the defensive effort. “We were well-prepared, we knew where their shooters were and we just did a very good job defending.”
The Cardinal was unable to capitalize on its stifling defense as UCLA goalkeeper Sami Hill matched Baldoni save for save at the other end. The redshirt sophomore made 11 stops, but ultimately, the Cardinal was able to put just enough by her to take the win.
“[UCLA] really packed it in, tried to rely on Sami and she did a great job.”said Stanford head coach John Tanner. “We kept our composure as the game was close and unfolding and did not allow our missed opportunities to frustrate us. I couldn’t be prouder of my team, anchored by Kate who was sensational tonight.”
Stanford senior Jillian Garton scored twice in what could have been her final meaningful game in the Cardinal cap. The captain began the scoring with a tally 5:46 into the game. After the Bruins tied it 30 seconds later, Stanford freshman Maggie Steffens sparked a three-goal second period with a goal two minutes into the second quarter. Senior Melissa Seidemann put away a skip shot to double the lead before Steffens capped off the half with her second tally to give the Cardinal a 4-1 lead at halftime.
The low-scoring affair continued after halftime as both teams were held scoreless until UCLA sophomore Emily Donohoe pulled the Bruins within two with 40 seconds left in the third quarter.
Garton added her second goal with 6:39 remaining in the game to give the Cardinal a three-score cushion, and that was all Baldoni and the Cardinal defense needed to ride out the win. Donohoe added a meaningless goal in the final minute to make the final score 5-3.
Stanford will now face the top-ranked Women of Troy in the final, which will take place tomorrow at 2:15 p.m. PST. The game will be a rematch of last year’s final, which the Cardinal won 6-4. Fans can watch live at NCAA.com.
Stanford’s athletics program has won at least one NCAA title every academic year since 1976-77. The Cardinal has yet to win one in 2012-13 — the synchronized swimming national title was in U.S. Collegiate competition — and many followers of the program believe that the women’s water polo team is the last one with a legitimate chance to bring an NCAA championship to the Farm this year.
“JT’s done a really good job preparing us for [USC],” Baldoni said. “We’ve played them three times so far this year and tomorrow’s going to be really fun. I’m excited to go out there and play some stellar defense.”
Contact Jana Persky at jpersky ‘at’ stanford.edu.