With its victory against USC today, the Stanford women’s water polo team (24-2) is one win away from earning its fourth national championship in five years.
Stanford pulled out a close 9-8 win today against the Trojans in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament, clinching a spot in Sunday’s championship game against UCLA.
Junior Maggie Steffens was clearly the difference maker in the matchup, and despite being double-teamed managed to notch 4 goals, 1 assist, and 4 steals on the day.
“That’s a great thing about water polo. No matter how many people are on you or however much pressure you’re receiving you got a whole team behind you, and that’s the spirit of Stanford,” said Steffens. “No matter what adversity comes our way we’ve got a team to back each other up.”
Senior Ashley Grossman and freshman Jordan Rainey also contributed two goals apiece.
The game marked the third time this season that the Cardinal came out victorious against the Trojans, the other two times being in the regular season and in the MPSF tournament. In typical fashion between two such high-level teams, the score mostly stayed within one or two goals: oftentimes Stanford would extend the lead and then USC would respond to keep the score close.
“[We] lost momentum a couple of times and I thought our team responded beautifully. And that’s what you have to do in the semifinals,” said head coach John Tanner.
“Our resilience on defense was really what pushed us through,” said Grossman. “Field blocks all over the place, every single girl in the pool played good 1-on-1 defense, a lot of good communication in there. I think our defense led to our offense, and that’s what made us successful.”
Stanford got off to an early 1-0 lead after a goal by Steffens. While USC responded with a goal of their own not even 30 seconds later, Grossman put the Cardinal back up by one before the teams traded goals to end the quarter.
The Trojans tied up the game at 3 early in the second quarter, before a powerplay goal from Rainey regained the lead for Stanford. Another powerplay goal, this time from Steffens, put the Cardinal up by two, before USC responded with another goal with less than 90 seconds to play in the half to make it a one point game at halftime.
Steffens scored her third goal of the game to open the second half, marking the beginning of a 3-1 Stanford run over the ensuing two and a half minutes, which gave the Cardinal its largest lead of the day, 8-5. While the Trojans scored two unanswered goals to pull within one, the latter of which was off of a penalty shot, Steffens converted on a penalty shot of her own less than 30 second later.
The last few minutes of the game featured some shutdown defense from the Cardinal, as Steffens and senior Kiley Neushul had some impressive field blocks that kept the ball away from the Stanford goal. Although USC scored with 42 seconds to play after an exclusion on Grossman, bringing the score within one, Stanford held back the Trojans to win the game.
Goalie Gabby Stone ended the game with 9 saves on 27 USC shots and only allowed 8 goals from an incredibly talented USC offense.
Tomorrow’s matchup will likely be even tougher for the Cardinal, who, despite beating the Bruins twice this season (10-6 in early February and 8-7 in April), lost to the team 7-6 in overtime in late February– one of its only two losses of the season.
“I think we need to play the game we’ve always played. Use everyone in the pool, play to our strengths, have fun, take some deep breaths,” said Grossman.
“We call it ‘Celebration Sunday’ and I think that’s something I’m really embracing as a senior,” she added.
Stanford takes on UCLA Sunday afternoon at 5:30pm as it seeks to win its second national championship in a row. The game will be held at Avery Aquatic Center.
Contact Alexa Philippou at aphil723 ‘at’ stanford.edu.