Despite the recent dominance of Stanford women’s water polo on the national stage, including four consecutive appearances in the national title match and a pair of NCAA titles to show for it in 2011 and 2012, the Cardinal have had a surprisingly tough time within their conference tournaments as of late. In fact, when the No. 1 Cardinal (20-1, 6-0 MPSF) take the pool for this weekend’s MPSF Tournament, they will be seeking their first conference title since 2006 at the tail end of yet another phenomenal regular season — a familiar storyline in recent years.
The Cardinal have narrowly missed out on that elusive title in the last two seasons, losing the 2013 MPSF championship to the eventual national champion USC Trojans in a precursor to the national title match, and falling just short in 2012 in an overtime heartbreaker to UCLA. In each of the five years preceding those two losses, Stanford had also finished in the top three of the conference tournament.
And even though the Cardinal are the top team in the nation and are currently riding an 11-game winning streak against some of the most talented offenses in the country, an MPSF title is definitely no certainty, especially in the midst of a deep and powerful conference that offers threats from all directions.
Although Stanford has had an easy time against the bottom half of the conference this season, the Cardinal are part of a three-pronged threat atop the conference with No. 2 UCLA and No. 3 USC, which have both also emerged as national powerhouses in recent seasons. Despite Stanford’s victories over both the Bruins and Trojans in its dominant run to close out the regular season, the Cardinal cannot afford to overlook two very talented teams that have given them postseason trouble in recent years.
That being said, the Cardinal offense has enjoyed another highly successful regular season, featuring two 40-goal scorers in juniors Kiley Neushul (42) and Ashley Grossman (40). In addition, a diverse offense with scoring threats from all around the pool has also featured three more 30-goal scorers in sophomore Maggie Steffens (38), senior Annika Dries (37) and sophomore Anna Yelizarova (34) in just the program’s fifth season with five 30-goal scorers on the same squad. The offense currently ranks second in the MPSF with 13.71 goals per match.
In addition, the defense has been dominant over the Cardinal’s recent run, in which it has held teams like UCLA, USC and Arizona State to no more than eight goals apiece. In fact, the Cardinal only allowed over six goals on one occasion over its tough six-match streak to close the season, to No. 2 UCLA in a narrow 9-8 win.
Sophomore goalkeeper Gabby Stone has helped to anchor a stiff defense with her 6.12 goals-against average as the Cardinal defense finished the season ranked third in the MPSF by allowing just 5.95 goals per match. However, even though the defense has been solid down the stretch, it suffered from some inconsistencies earlier this season, including allowing nine goals to UCLA in February for its only loss of the season.
That defense will need to hold strong as it will be likely be tested ferociously again in the championship match of the tournament. Especially with the Stanford offense having failed to record more than nine goals in its late-season wins over USC, UCLA and Cal, if the defense has an off match, it could easily spell trouble for the Cardinal again.
With the Cardinal having earned a first-round bye with its first-place conference finish, they will await the victor of the quarterfinal match between fourth-seeded Cal and fifth-seeded San Jose State. If Stanford can complete season sweeps of either the Golden Bears or the Spartans in that match, it will likely set up another monumental duel with either UCLA or USC in the finals in what could again be a precursor to the eventual national title match.
Even though the Cardinal, as the top-ranked team in the country, are almost certain to earn an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament even with a loss in the MPSFs, they will be looking to lock down the automatic qualification to the tournament with that elusive conference title. With USC playing host to the tournament, giving USC and UCLA a home-field advantage, it certainly won’t be an easy road to the top for the Cardinal.
Stanford will kick off its MPSF Tournament run in its semifinal match on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in Los Angeles.
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu.