By James Hemker
Despite a second-half slide, top-ranked women’s water polo (20-1, 6-0 MPSF) was able to ward off No. 4 Cal (16-78, 3-3 MPSF) in an 11-9 decision. The Cardinal commanded a 9-2 lead going into the half, but foul trouble allowed the Golden Bears to make a 2-7 run in the second half. Stanford advances to the Sunday’s MPSF finals against No. 2 USC.
Freshman Ryann Neushul led the team in scoring with four goals. Neushul, who was named the MPSF Newcomer of the Year earlier this week, has now scored four times in back-to-back matches. Sophomore Aria Fischer emerged from the fray with her tenth hat trick of the season.
“Ryann’s development has been steady,” said head coach John Tanner. “It takes a little while to get used to the college game, but she has now had so much experience and she’s tough.”
Senior Kat Klass opened up the game by scoring the team’s first and third goals. Junior Kayla Constandse recorded her fifth goal on the season at the end of the third quarter, which proved to be Stanford’s final goal of the match.
Junior Makenzie Fischer was quiet on the stat sheet with just a single goal, but her presence was still felt around the pool. A top-tier defender who moonlights as the leading Cardinal scorer, she helped to stop the Golden Bears on 12 of their 17 power plays.
“You have to remember, she made the Olympic team as a defender,” said Tanner. “I think they were three for 14 at one point on 6-on-5 plays, and Makenzie is a big part of that. That’s a vital part of the game, especially when you have referees calling fouls.”
In the goal, redshirt sophomore Emalia Eichelberger posted six saves and a steal. The Cardinal forced six steals as a team.
The final score belies the dominant performance by Stanford in the first half. After winning the first sprint, the Cardinal were able to convert on their first two possessions for a quick 2-0 lead. Goals from Klass and Aria Fischer sandwiched a Cal score to make it a 4-1 lead at the end of the first.
“In the first half, we always aim to come out with a strong start,” Aria Fischer said. “I think today during the first half we had really good chemistry. We were doing a good job attacking and seeing each other in the pool. We played some really good water polo out there.”
The second quarter started quiet for the first two minutes until Mackenzie Fischer was found in transition for an easy goal. Aria Fischer and Neushul spent the rest of the half trading goals, with Fischer finding her hat trick with 2:30 left, and Neushul recording her third score at the 1:10 mark.
The second half opened with Cal scoring their third goal during a 6-on-5. Neushul responded the next possession on Stanford’s own power play to restore the lead to seven, 10-3.
From that point, the Cardinal fell into severe foul trouble. Seven exclusions were levied against Stanford from 5:18 to the 1:26 mark, and impact players junior Hannah Shabb and sophomore Sarah Klass both fouled out. Stanford was slow to react to the referees’ tight calling of the game, and they paid the price. The two teams combined for 30 exclusions, with 17 of them being assessed to Cardinal players.
“We really lost our rhythm,” said Tanner. “We had seven exclusions in the third, and we also had a lot of offensive fouls. We were giving too many opportunities to the referees to make calls against us. I was telling the team to be mindful of what was happening. They called the game much more technically and much tighter, so we had to talk about how to adapt.”
The Golden Bears took advantage of the power plays, scoring three times. Constandse’s goal at the end of the third meant the lead only shrank by one, 11-5, from the beginning to the end of the quarter, but the momentum was with Cal.
“Cal did great and they were putting on a great attacking half, so it was about locking down on defense and trying to keep up our own attack,” said Aria Fischer. “We needed to play defense as a team like we had been on offense.”
Stanford failed to score in the fourth quarter, marking just the third time all season that the Cardinal were blanked in a quarter. Cal took advantage of the Stanford drought by scoring three times in the first four minutes of the final period and cutting the lead in half.
After a much-needed timeout, the Cardinal regrouped and the defense was able to hold fast while the offense ran off the clock in 35 second chunks. A final Golden Bears goal slipped by with 24 seconds left, but by that point it was clear that Stanford had held on long enough to secure the win.
Stanford returns to the pool Sunday at 3:00 p.m. to face USC. The two teams have split their last two meetings, with the Cardinal picking up the most recent win 9-8 in overtime.
“USC is a really good team,” said Tanner. “We beat them earlier, but they didn’t have their leading scorer. Now they’ve got their whole complement. We’ve had fun games with them, and I like to think that we will be able to keep a good rhythm throughout the game tomorrow.”
Contact James Hemker at jahemker ‘at’ stanford.edu.