There is an eerie déjà vu about this season for Stanford women’s water polo. They started the season strong — undefeated. Just like last year. They rolled through early exhibitions and claimed the Stanford Invitational title. Just like last year. The streak carried them all the way to the UC Irvine invitational — where they lost to UCLA. Just like last year. Last year, they won the national championship. Just like this year?
“Winning the championship last year was a really amazing experience,” said junior goalkeeper Gabby Stone. But Stone acknowledges, “We always remind ourselves that this is a new year; we’re a different team with different competition.”
This may be true, but there is one constant that seems to hold, year after year — an intense rivalry with UCLA.
Though “tactically we do not do anything differently,” said sophomore Jamie Neushul, “mentally, everyone is amped and there’s a lot of energy at practice.”
That’s the beauty of a rivalry, the spirit, fight and undeniably “amped” atmosphere. UCLA and Stanford have bounced back and forth between the top four national rankings in the past ten years. The squads swap tournament titles routinely, and neither has swept a season in the past three. Just this year, the Bruins were able to take the No. 1 ranking from the Cardinal with a win in the final match of the UC Irvine Invitational, leaving Stanford ranked second after suffering their first loss of the season.
“It’s gotten personal with UCLA,” Neushul said.
Sophomore Sophia Monaghan added, “Most girls on our team know a lot of UCLA girls, played with them … that personal relationship adds another component to the desire to win.”
The rivalry notion clearly adds emotion to the game. But UCLA has a unique mix of players that share a history with Stanford players. Three players on the current Stanford team and two on UCLA are from the same high school, Dos Pueblos High in Santa Barbara. Another Bruin is from a high school in Santa Barbara as well. All members of UCLA’s team, sans one, are from California, and 14 of 19 for the Cardinal are as well. These players have crossed paths their entire lives, and there’s history in every match.
This history serves to add a dynamic aspect to pre-UCLA practices for Stanford. Those practices differ from others because, as sophomore Cassidy Papa put it, “we are pretending to play against [UCLA’s] players specifically.” After so many repeated matchups there is a certain level of intensity expected before every game. In practice, specific situations can be replicated to best prepare the team to face the types of high-pressure situations they constantly find themselves in against the Bruins. The last game went to overtime, and last year’s game in Los Angeles was won by only one. Stanford’s four-point win in the national championship was the largest margin of victory between the two teams in the past three seasons.
To prepare for these situations, coach John Turner turns up the heat in practice. “We definitely do more situational work,” Monaghan said. “We’ll practice ‘three minutes left in the game down by one’ and do that over and over.”
Each game against UCLA could be a championship preview, and the team knows that. “[We] mimic situations that could happen in a championship game against them,” Monaghan said.
However, Papa added that “playing UCLA in a championship situation versus a regular season situation doesn’t really change our mentality or strategy.”
That’s the mark of a good rivalry: the games maintain intensity regardless of context, although that’s how the team looks to play all of their games.
Though matchups with UCLA have perfectly mirrored those of last year, the team is well aware that history is not bound to repeat itself. “Any championship match is going to take it’s own mentality or strategy. It doesn’t matter who’s playing who, anything goes in those games,” Neushul said.
Defending the national championship is, however, something the team has in the back of their minds. But they are well aware of the precarious perch of a national champion. “This is a brand new year, the championship is not ours to lose, but ours to fight for,” Stone said.
However, the one loss, second rank, momentum-flushed Card seems just as poised as last year to take the title home. They’ve had stalwart defense and diverse, relentless offense. They’ve played their style and their level regardless of the opponent. The NCAA’s are at Stanford this year, something the team will certainly use to its advantage.
Most importantly, the team is focused and determined. But this team is about far more than tactics and athleticism. There is a trust and confidence in each other that prepares the Stanford squad to handle any adversity, an unparalleled teamwork.
One common idea seems to unite the players: “As long as we play our best as a team, we have every confidence we’re going to be fine,” Monaghan said.
For this team, that means another NCAA championship. Just like last year.
Contact Carlie Tenenbaum at carliet ‘at’ stanford.edu.