First came No. 1 USC. Then came No. 5 Arizona State. And to complete the top-five trifecta, last came No. 2 UCLA. Through the toughest stretch of its schedule featuring a trio of elite conference opponents, No. 1 Stanford women’s water polo (19-1, 5-0 MPSF) prevailed by defeating all three in consecutive meetings, capping the stretch off with a 9-8 downing of UCLA (22-3, 4-1) in a battle of the nation’s top two teams on Friday before having no issues in a drubbing of Cal State-Bakersfield (12-19, 0-5) on Saturday.
Against a rugged UCLA defense that had held Stanford to its two lowest offensive outputs of this season (six goals and eight goals) in the teams’ last two meetings, the Cardinal offense was able to do just enough with a late push in the fourth period. While the defense regressed from its strong performances in its matchups with USC and Arizona State, it still made some key stops in the fourth period against a UCLA offense that has been inconsistent at times to maintain the lead.
After the teams were deadlocked through the first period, alternating goals en route to a 2-2 score, goals from sophomore Maggie Steffens and senior Annika Dries in the early minutes of the second period put the Cardinal up 4-2 before each team finished the half with two scores apiece to make it a 6-4 Stanford advantage heading into the break.
Despite the relative deadlock of the first half, UCLA came out of the break strong, scoring three straight goals in a span of just over three minutes to make quickly take a 7-6 lead and steal all of the momentum in the match. Stanford gained that momentum back very quickly, however, when junior Ashley Grossman scored just 24 seconds after the final goal of that run to tie the game up at 7-7 and send it into the final frame.
After that, the defense took over and propelled the Cardinal to victory. Although the Cardinal were shorthanded after being called for a penalty, freshman Jamie Neushul made a field block that led to the ball quickly being pushed down the pool for a score from senior Kaley Dodson that pushed the Cardinal to an 8-7 advantage with 6:05 left in the match that they would not relinquish.
Sophomore goalkeeper Gabby Stone, who was very impressive in making 21 combined saves while allowing only nine goals to the high-powered USC and Arizona State offenses in her previous two starts, was also huge late in the match with a critical block of a free throw attempt from Emily Donohoe. Had Donohoe, UCLA’s leading scorer, converted the chance, the match would have been tied. Junior Kiley Neushul quickly took it down the pool and scored for Stanford, giving the team a 9-7 lead and effectively putting the match away late.
After the big victory over UCLA to keep a stranglehold on the top spot in the nation, the Cardinal coasted to a 19-6 victory over Cal State-Bakersfield the next day to secure the top overall seed in the upcoming MPSF Tournament, guaranteeing a first-round bye and a berth in the semifinals.
Kiley Neushul had a huge game for the Cardinal, netting six goals, including four in the first period, while Kaley Dodson added a hat trick and Dries, Grossman and Jamie Neushul added two apiece in another resounding offensive effort. Stanford started the match with 11 straight goals before the Roadrunners finally scored late in the second period. Although the game was already effectively over at the half, at which point the Cardinal led 12-1, the team still pushed through to the finish, featuring a defensive effort that kept Cal State-Bakersfield off the scoreboard for the final 13:20.
The Cardinal will wrap up their regular season this Saturday with a return home to face No. 4 Cal at Avery Aquatic Center before preparing for the following weekend’s MPSF Tournament and the NCAA Championships in early May.
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu.