For the second straight year, the women’s water polo national championship was decided by a single goal and a pivotal play in the final 15 seconds.
Last year, Stanford came out on top, with Kiley Neushul netting the game-winning goal on a penalty shot following a controversial call.
This year, the Cardinal weren’t as lucky.
Despite a ferocious comeback that saw Stanford tie the game with 11 seconds left, USC’s Stephania Haralabidis fired the ball from nearly halfway across the pool — past the Stanford defense and goalie — into the top left corner with six seconds left on the clock. The goal handed USC an 8-7 championship win, dethroning the defending champion Cardinal and denying them a third straight title and a fifth in six years. The victory also completed the Trojans’ undefeated season, its second in program history.
“Just by force of will, to score those last two goals…That speaks volumes to the character of this team and to their resilience,” said head coach John Tanner after the game. “They never once thought for a second that we weren’t going to win.
“I loved how we kept fighting back. Their spirit was unreal.”
The Cardinal, which had lost to USC in the teams’ three previous meetings this season, saved their strongest performance against the Trojans for last.
While Stanford had only scored six, three and five goals against USC the first three times they played, the Cardinal were able to put together their best offensive performance yet in their attempt to derail the Trojans, netting seven goals — four on power plays — against a suffocating USC defense.
Stanford’s defensive effort, particularly Julia Hermann’s performance in goal, cannot be understated, either. The junior keeper recorded 11 saves in response to USC’s 27 shots, while Stanford’s defense held USC to only three first-half goals despite giving up seven of its 12 turnovers prior to halftime.
Things looked bleak for the Cardinal when USC’s Brianna Daboub put the Trojans ahead 7-5 with 52 seconds left in the final quarter, but out of a Stanford timeout, Hermann connected with Gurpreet Sohi off a long pass, which the senior passed off to freshman Kat Klass for a quick goal.
“Honestly, at that point, your instinct just kicks in,” said Sohi about the play. “I wasn’t thinking about a lot. I got a great pass from our goalie on my right hand, and I looked at the cage and then at Kat [Klass] and I knew what to do.”
A strong defensive stand and save by Hermann on the next play set up Klass for her second goal in that final minute, which she skipped past the USC defense and goalie to the tie the game and seemingly send the Cardinal into overtime.
Yet Haralabidis’ last-second heroics would produce the goal — her fifth of the day — that would define the 2016 NCAA Championship.
“Each time they needed a goal, [Haralabidis] delivered,” Tanner said. “She’s an Olympic-level player. She provided us with a ton of challenges today. That last goal was a sublime shot.”
After USC drew first blood with a goal less than two minutes after the start of the game, the Cardinal, via sophomore Shannon Cleary, responded with one of their own off a power play. USC would go up at halftime 3-2, but a goal from freshman Madison Berggren, the first of her brace, would tie things up at 3-3 with 5:32 to go in the third quarter.
USC would go on to score three of the game’s next five goals, keeping a minimum of a one-goal lead, leading up to Daboub’s shot with 52 ticks left in the fourth.
The Cardinal never led in the match, and prior to Klass’s goal with 11 seconds left, had only been tied with the Trojans for less than a minute, following Berggren’s goal early in the third quarter.
While Berggren and Klass contributed two goals apiece, some of the Cardinal’s main goal-producers from the rest of the season were limited: Junior Jamie Neushul, who led the team in goals going into the NCAA Tournament, was held scoreless on her three shots, while Sohi and junior Dani Jackovich were also shut down and only recorded a combined three shots.
Despite a heartbreaking last-second loss, Stanford got closer to winning the title than many water polo fans expected.
After several roster losses to graduation and Olympic training, the team struggled against some of the top competition in the regular season, recording losses to UCLA, California and two to USC before falling to the Trojans in the MPSF Championship.
The team’s five losses leading up to the NCAA Tournament were the most the program has given up since the 2008 season, but none of that mattered when the Cardinal arrived in Los Angeles, where they cruised past UCSB in the quarters, handedly took down No. 3 UCLA in the semifinals and competed until the final seconds against the clear favorites to win the national title, USC.
After several current and former Cardinal water polo players will compete in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Stanford’s squad will return to the pool in January, when it will compete for the program’s sixth national title.
Contact Alexa Philippou at aphil723 ‘at’ stanford.edu.