By Sam Fisher
Two hundred and forty two days ago, Stanford women’s water polo, the two-time defending national champions dubbed by many as the best college water polo team ever before the 2013 season, came as close as it could possibly have come to an NCAA title without grasping it, falling 10-9 in quadruple overtime to archrival USC.
Two days from now, No. 2 Stanford will begin its quest for revenge when the Cardinal travels to Berkeley for the California Speedo Cup to kick off what could be one of the most exciting water polo seasons in NCAA history.
All season long, the debate between whether No. 1 USC or Stanford is the best team in the country will rage. The gap between the top two teams and the rest of the nation is pronounced — the teams were a combined 52-0 in games besides Stanford-USC in the 2013 season — so each matchup between the two will have the water polo world holding its breath. Don’t expect a final answer, however, until the final day of the NCAA Championships on May 11 in Los Angeles.
In the Cardinal’s opening weekend at Berkeley, Stanford will play Pacific and then face off against No. 4 Cal in an exhibition match. In those matchups, Stanford head coach John Tanner will have his first opportunity to show how he plans to replace Melissa Seidemann ‘12, who finished her playing career last season after taking the 2012 year off to star on the United States Olympic team that brought home gold medals.
Stanford does return two other players from that Olympic squad in sophomore driver Maggie Steffens and senior two-meter Annika Dries. Steffens, who was the Most Outstanding Player in the 2012 Olympic water polo tournament, is expected to be a stalwart again for the Cardinal after placing second on the squad with 60 goals last season. The play of Dries, who struggled with injury early in 2013 but still scored 35 goals and earned second-team All-MPSF status, will be another key to watch this weekend.
The Cardinal also returns two star scorers who were key contributors on the Cardinal’s 2012 NCAA title-winning team while Dries and Steffens were in London: junior driver Kiley Neushul and senior driver Kaley Dodson. Neushul was named first-team All-MPSF for her 50-goal performance in 2013 while Dodson was a first-team All-American in 2012.
Stanford will have three weeks off from competition after Saturday before hosting the Stanford Invitational on Feb. 1 and 2. When the regular season begins, look out for the home game against USC on March 30 and road game at UCLA, the last team besides USC to beat the Cardinal, on April 11.
The matchup between Stanford and Pacific is scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in Berkeley and will be followed at 3 p.m. by an exhibition between Cal and Stanford.
Contact Sam Fisher at safisher ‘at’ stanford.edu.