It is rare that back-to-back national champions enter a NCAA Tournament with something to prove. However, that is the situation No. 2 Stanford women’s water polo (21-5, 4-2 MPSF) finds itself in. Having lost three times to No. 1 USC in regular and postseason play, the Cardinal enter the NCAA Tournament ready to fight to return to the top of collegiate women’s water polo.
Stanford’s journey to the title begins on Friday at UCLA’s Spieker Aquatics Center against No. 7 Santa Barbara (18-12) in a quarterfinal matchup. The Cardinal faced off against Gauchos once previously this season in a 16-5 victory in Santa Barbara. Sophomore Katie Dudley was the hero in that matchup, scoring a career-high 5 goals in the game. The Cardinal also showed their ability to fight back after UCSB jumped out to an early 2-0 lead before Stanford managed to assert their dominance of the ball and scoreline.
The team will need similar grit if it hopes to emerge as NCAA champions on Sunday. Their path to victory is not an easy one, and the Cardinal will be forced to most likely face both perennial powers – USC and No. 3 UCLA. Assuming Stanford moves past their quarterfinal match, a semifinal game against UCLA will be a stiff challenge.
The Bruins have the advantage of playing at home and a raucous fan base to ensure that there will be plenty of blue and gold in the stands. Stanford had a similar environment last year when the Championships were hosted at The Farm, but the Cardinal will now find themselves far from home. The only solace is that UCLA’s cross-town rivals USC will most likely experience the loudest boos.
The biggest challenge for Stanford will be finding an answer to a strong USC team. The Trojans have proven so far to be an insurmountable obstacle for the Cardinal, beating Stanford in each of their previous match ups. However, the team showed progress against USC during the MPSF Championship. The Cardinal managed to capture the momentum early and went into halftime leading 2-1. But Stanford’s defensive lapses allowed the Trojans to assert themselves offensively in the third and fourth quarters, leading to a 8-5 USC victory.
However, the Cardinal have all the pieces to overcome tough match ups. Junior Jamie Neushul leads Stanford in goals per game at 1.77, ranking her fourth in the conference. Klass is eighth (1.58), with seniors Anna Yelizarova (1.45) and Gurpreet Sohi (1.35) at 15th and 19th, respectively. Strong offensive performances will be key in matching the firepower of other top-ranked opponents.
Junior goalkeeper Julia Hermann’s 8.62 saves per game is sixth in the conference, with her 5.67 goals against average proving good enough for seventh. The only goalkeeper on the roster, Hermann has stepped up for the Cardinal in a huge way this season after returning from not playing last year due to injury. Her strong defensive play earned her an All-MPSF honorable mention.
The NCAA Championships will be the last collegiate tournament for the graduating seniors on the team. Sohi, Yelizarova and Rachel Johnson have overseen Stanford’s dominance of the NCAA women’s water polo, helping lead the team to a 100-11 overall record and two national championships.
The quarterfinals will kick off at 1:45 p.m. on Friday, with the semifinals and championship match following on Saturday and Sunday in Los Angeles.
Contact Amanda McLean at ammclean ‘at’ stanford.edu.