In recent history, there hasn’t been a more storied program in the sport of water polo — or perhaps more generally, a more successful program on The Farm itself — than Stanford’s women’s water polo.
The Cardinal have won two national titles in a row, as well as four of the last five, and have appeared in the championship game the past six years. Stanford has sent countless athletes, including current players such as Maggie Steffens and alumnae such as Brenda Villa ‘03, to participate in international competition, where they have not only competed but played integral roles in leading the United States to gold-medal glory.
But it’s the Cardinal’s very dominance in the pool that threatens to make this season different. With Kiley Neushul and Ashley Grossman having graduated last spring and Steffens taking a year off to prepare for the Rio Olympics with Team USA, the Cardinal will be losing nearly half of their goal scorers from last season. Adding to the team’s losses, would-be freshman Makenzie Fischer, one of the most promising youth in the sport, has opted to defer a year so she can chase a gold medal with the national team, while goalkeeper Gabby Stone also has been training with the squad.
While the Olympic-year losses may appear to be catastrophic, they aren’t something the team — which faced a similar situation in 2012 when the London Olympics were around the corner — has dwelled on in the slightest, particularly as the team starts its season this weekend in the LouStrong Memorial Tournament at San Jose State.
“We haven’t talked much about how we’ve lost people — more like how we’ve gained people, how people are stepping into new roles,” said junior Jamie Neushul, an All-American honorable mention last season. “It’s a brand new team, brand new year. Everybody’s got a new team, and we’re just focusing on what we have and what we can do with that.
“We’re going to find stuff out along the way and everybody’s ready to just come out as strong as they possibly can.”
It’s easy to forget that while Stanford graduates players and sends others off to the Olympics, it is still home to some of the best players in the nation, promising athletes that are more than capable of meeting the standard of excellence that Stanford water polo has established over the years.
It’s something that the Collegiate Water Polo Association hasn’t forgotten, as the Cardinal earned the No. 1 spot in preseason polling, right where they left off after winning the national title in May.
“These guys came here because they had the expectation that more and more would be expected of them each year,” head coach John Tanner said. “They aren’t surprised by being looked at as, ‘Well hey, what have you done?’ ‘Well I spent seven, eight years trying to get myself in the position to be there [at Stanford], then I spent the last season, all the season before.”
Stanford’s returning players, who have been more or less waiting in the shadows behind Steffens, Grossman and the elder Neushul, all saw time in the pool last year, with seven of them scoring at least 10 goals.
“If you look through our games earlier [last year], we were using 12, 14 players throughout, so it’s not like all of a sudden we got to fall of 2015 and looked at our roster,” Tanner said. “You’re always mixing short- and long-term, the same way [with] today’s workout we’re getting ready for the Lou Tully Invite, but we also have an eye toward April, May.”
After contributing 28 goals last season, Jamie Neushul will be expected to put more of the scoring load on her back, but she’ll have the help of fellow USA Women’s Junior Team member Jordan Rainey, who also had a 20-goal season in her first year on The Farm in 2015.
The pair will be joined by seniors Gurpreet Sohi, one of the team’s two captains, and Anna Yelizarova, who combined for 48 goals last season, as well as junior Dani Jackovich, one of the team’s top returning scorers.
And it’s not only returning stars who are poised to make an impact: The Cardinal have a crew of five freshmen who are looking to make a statement, and despite not appearing in many games during her time on The Farm, junior Julia Hermann, the team’s only keeper on the roster with Stone not available, has been forced to take the goal.
“She [Hermann] is just stepping up every day,” Neushul said. “She didn’t play the last two years and hasn’t played in a game in a while. She fought through some injuries and she just came out like a superstar this fall, so it’s going to be really fun to just see her get back at it.”
While the team is still forging its identity, what it has displayed so far is promising.
After winning the national title in May, the squad that would take the pool in 2016 also had the opportunity to come together as a group when it participated in the World University Games in South Korea.
“I think it was super helpful,” Neushul said. “We learned a lot about each other early.
“It helped us shift our mindset and really get focused on the new players that are stepping into new roles. We didn’t do as well as we would have liked over in Korea, but I think in the long run that’s going to help us along a lot.”
“What’s really fun about this team is that… you kind of look at it and you think, ‘Well where are the answers going to come from?’ But they have great water polo IQs and they have breadth of skill, so that we’ve got a ton of options with these guys and different players are really good at different things, and it’s fun,” Tanner said. “There’s a buzz to the group but also to the flair they bring into parts of the game.”
That flair and water polo IQ will be put to the test this weekend in the team’s season-opening games against Pacific, UC Davis, Cal State Monterey Bay and San Jose State.
The tournament and the first part of the team’s season don’t feature any of the team’s typically toughest opponents in UCLA, USC and California, the other handful of teams that round out the country’s very best, providing Stanford time to figure out its identity and improve throughout a long regular season that culminates with matchups against those top teams.
And beyond that, who knows? But when it comes to the Cardinal, it’s clear that they are still considered — with or without their Olympic stars — perhaps the utmost force to be reckoned with in the water polo world.
“These guys have been preparing for this for a long, long time,” Tanner said, “and then they’re surrounded by it [success] on campus, so nobody’s shedding a tear for us locally or nationally.”
Contact Alexa Philippou at aphil723 ‘at’ stanford.edu.