At this time last year, if you asked any educated Stanford sports fanatic which team was most likely bring home an NCAA Championship they would have said women’s water polo — and they would have been right. Water polo was heading into the NCAA championship with a 22-2 record, with both losses coming against top four teams. This spring however, there isn’t a team on The Farm that brings the same championship confidence that women’s water polo had last year, but there are still a few with a solid shot. With NCAA Championships for spring sports approaching quickly, we asked Daily sportswriters Vihan Lakshman, Do-Hyoung Park, Alexa Philippou and Neel Ramachandran to share their reasoning for which spring sport they think has the greatest chance to take home Stanford’s 109th NCAA title.
Vihan: In sizing up the odds of a team taking home a national title, three overarching factors come to my mind: a roster peaking at the right time, a star player who can completely dominate and sturdy senior leadership. Stanford men’s golf checks all three of those boxes. After falling short of the winner’s circle in its first eight tournaments this season, Conrad Ray’s squad finished strong with a victory at the Western Intercollegiate and followed that up with another compelling performance in their very next outing to claim their third-straight Pac-12 title. On top of that, the Cardinal just so happen to have one of the best amateur players in the world in Maverick McNealy, who recently tied Tiger Woods and Patrick Rodgers for the most individual wins in program history. Not coincidentally, the last time Stanford made a deep run in the NCAAs — finishing second in 2013 — it was Rodgers and NCAA individual champion Cameron Wilson leading the charge.
If McNealy goes low, which he always looks poised to do, Stanford will be in contention. Moreover, that 2013 NCAA championship also saw the emergence of then-sophomore David Boote, who finished tied for third and posted a career-best round of 65. Now, as a senior, Boote should provide the leadership and experience on the biggest stage in college golf to help this Stanford team with all of the requisite tools bring home the trophy.
Do: When in doubt, trust the team that’s been there before. Try this out for size: Stanford women’s golf returns all five of its starters from the squad that won the first national title in program history last season, including two of the top 10 individual finishers at NCAA stroke play in seniors Mariah Stackhouse and Lauren Kim, who have been the foundation of this team together for three years in a row. Tack on another veteran quickly blossoming into a star in her own right in junior Casey Danielson (who actually outplayed Kim and Stackhouse at NCAA Regionals), gritty sophomore Shannon Aubert (who, by the way, went 3-0 in match play last season as the rock of Stanford’s lineup) and blossoming freshman Sierra Kersten, and you have an airtight five-woman lineup with steadfast leadership, star power and consistency — checking off Vihan’s hallowed points from earlier. Don’t forget the clutch gene that Stackhouse showed to crush Baylor’s spirits in last year’s title match with an insane comeback — these golfers have been on the highest stage before, and they did anything but fold under the pressure.
Consistency is especially key in the grueling match play-stroke play format of the NCAA golf championships, and this team has absolutely been peaking at the right time with a win at the Silverado Showdown to wrap up the regular season followed by another win at the NCAA Regional last weekend. The Cardinal were badly underseeded last postseason too — but don’t sleep on them, because that’s when they’re at their best, and come a few weeks from now, they’re going to bring their second straight championship home to The Farm.
Alexa: Over the last few years, there is one word to describe Stanford women’s water polo program: champions. The Cardinal have won four of the last five titles, including back to back ones in 2014 and 2015, and will have that tradition of excellence working in their favor as they go into the NCAA Tournament.
That being said, this year’s team cannot particularly be equated with those from previous years. Several Cardinal from last year’s team have either graduated — including last year’s finals hero, Kiley Neushul — or, in the case of star Maggie Steffens, taken time off to train for the Olympics. In the absence of these greats, the team has not been up to their usual utterly dominant caliber, recording five losses, the most the program has had since the 2008 season.
Then why am I arguing that this team has a good chance at winning the national championship? For one, the team’s habit of winning national titles cannot be underestimated, regardless of the results of the regular season. The nature of collegiate water polo also essentially leaves three teams with chances at winning the title: USC, UCLA and Stanford — if we’re trying to answer this question in a literal sense, the lack of parity in water polo makes this Stanford team the one with the best chances to win a national title (other Stanford teams have to get through many more competitive teams if they want to make it to the national title match).
Looking at the actual (probable) matchups, Stanford vs. UCLA is a difficult one, to be sure. The teams have traded wins prior to the NCAAs, but I like Stanford in Game 3, though for all intents and purposes it could truly be a toss up. So then that leaves the foreboding USC-Stanford matchup. USC beat Stanford in each of their meetings this season, though Stanford’s offense did slightly better in the second. USC could still very well beat the Cardinal in the national title game — they might really be that much better than Stanford this year — but I bet this game, if Stanford makes it this far, will be closer than the previous to Trojan-Cardinal battles.
The Cardinal may not win the national title, but I do maintain that they at least have the best chance at winning it.
Neel: While my colleagues’ choices are all fine and dandy, my title-winning pick is a team no one else is talking about: women’s tennis. At first glance, I might seem a little crazy: The team is ranked 12th in the country, dipped under .500 for the first time ever earlier this year and was fifth in the Pac-12 about midway through the season. But as we’ve seen time and again, records and rankings are essentially meaningless when it comes to the postseason. What really matters is which team can get hot come early May. The Cardinal have won seven of eight matches since late March — that lone loss came against Cal, ranked No. 1 in the country and seemingly destined for a perfect 20-0 year-end record… until the last match of the season, when the Cardinal gained revenge with a massive 4-3 upset at Taube Stadium. That victory threw the Pac-12 standings into chaos, with Stanford eventually clinching the conference title in a winner-take-all matchup against USC.
The Cardinal’s second-half surge isn’t a coincidence: The team regained their star player, junior Carol Zhao, in the latter portion of the season after she took time off to compete on the professional circuit. Zhao’s return to the No. 1 spot in the lineup is a huge win for the team, as it bumps every other player one spot down, in turn making their competition easier (you won’t see too many players better than Caroline Doyle at the No. 3 spot, for example).
Add to the mix senior Krista Hardebeck’s 15 straight dual match wins, freshman Caroline Lampl’s phenomenally clutch play (pulling out 7 3-setters in the dual season) and this team has all the tools it needs for a lengthy run at a national title. As a 15-seed in the tournament, Stanford would face second-seeded Florida in the third round, a team that the Cardinal edged 4-3 earlier this season. If Stanford finds its way past the Gators, it should have no problem reaching the semifinals in Tulsa. The program is known for saving its best for last, winning the championship in 2013 as a 12-seed and in 2010 as an 8-seed, and everything points towards another great year-end finish as the Cardinal vie for their 18th national title.
Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu, Do-Hyoung Park at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu, Alexa Philippou at aphil723 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Neel Ramachandran at neelr ‘at’ stanford.edu.