In the world of collegiate women’s water polo, nothing is given, and everything is earned, especially in the case of the NCAA tournament. Although there are undoubtedly four teams (UCLA, Stanford, USC and Cal) that stand above the rest, the team that will walk away with a national championship remains unforeseen leading into the tournament this weekend.
No. 2 Stanford was favored to win it all a few weeks ago. Besides a loss earlier in the season to rival UCLA, the team had gone undefeated and put up several impressive, blowout scores. Then, in mid-April, Stanford led the entire game against UCLA and came out with an 8-7 win, improving their season record against the Bruins to 2-1 and suggesting that the Cardinal were the team to beat.
But when Stanford was upset 8-7 by Cal in the semifinals of the MPSF tournament, it was a reality check for the team and for water polo enthusiasts: Stanford was certainly beatable, and UCLA wasn’t the only team who could thwart the team’s hopes for back-to-back national championships.
“It was a good lesson for us to make sure that everyday it’s do or die, especially here on out,” said junior Maggie Steffens. “We were really excited to be able to come back the next day [after losing to Cal] and play such a good team like USC and get that opportunity to show what we got.”
The Cardinal will have to channel this do-or-die mentality this weekend: The team starts off with a match against No. 8 Princeton. Although the Tigers aren’t one of the more dominant teams in the country, they should not be underestimated.
“They have a strong defensive team,” said head coach John Tanner. “A quality opponent. We’ll have to be on our toes.”
If Stanford advances past Princeton, the team will face the winner of the matchup between USC and Hawaii. While the Cardinal are 2-0 against the Trojans this season, both games were close — the first going into overtime and the second only a three-point win. With such a talented opponent as USC, Stanford cannot afford to dwell on past records or scores and must respond as best as it can against the USC team that’s in the pool at that moment, assuming both teams advance.
UCLA and Cal also stand as formidable opponents whom Stanford would only meet if they were to advance to the championship match. While the Cardinal would certainly look for revenge against the Cal team that crushed their hopes at a MPSF tournament title, the Golden Bears have a talented squad that has given Stanford two close matches this season. UCLA, on the other hand, was the only team to have beaten Stanford before the MPSF tournament, and will perhaps be the toughest opponent the Cardinal could face.
“So many of the teams are really well prepared. Everyone has been practicing, everyone has been dreaming of this moment,” Steffens said. “For us, it’s just a matter of sticking together as a team no matter what adversity we have to face and no matter what happens in or out of the pool.
“We really want it for each other, we really want it for our families, and we really want it for our school.”
History, in some ways, does not appear to be working in the Cardinal’s favor: In each of the 14 NCAA women’s water polo tournaments, the hosting team has never won the championship title.
Yet Stanford, who will be hosting the tournament at Avery Aquatic Center, isn’t phased by this trend.
“People around here love being on the cutting edge, love being innovators, love doing things that no one has never done before,” Tanner said. “Stanford would never exist without people like that. Our team is loving that challenge.
“It would be awesome to make history, but at the end of the day, it’s just another water polo game,” Steffens said. “The team that shows up and the team that wants it more is going to be the team that at the end of the day is the last team in the pool. That’s where we want to be and that’s the goal that we have. Whether or not we make history while doing it is just an added bonus.”
Working in Stanford’s favor, however, is a deadly combination of upperclassmen and youth: While freshmen Jordan Rainey and Katie Dudley, in addition to sophomore Jamie Neushul, have had impressive seasons so far and could greatly contribute during the tournament, Steffens and seniors Ashley Grossman and Kiley Neushul will bring not only their killer skill but also their experience from past years to help lead the team to the title game.
“I count on our experience,” Tanner said. “We just have great leaders, but we also have a lot of youthful enthusiasm. That combination — so many of our team have been there and experienced success on this stage — is valuable because we also have a wonderful group of young players who have arrived and gotten up to speed really quickly.”
The weekend will be sure to include some of the best water polo of the season. Stanford begins tournament play at Avery Aquatic Center against the Princeton Tigers at noon on Friday.
Contact Alexa Philippou at aphil723 ‘at’ stanford.edu.