By James Hemker
In an intense game which lasted to sudden death overtime, No. 1 women’s water polo was bested 8-9 by No. 2 USC in Sunday’s MPSF title game. USC scored with just 43 seconds in the third overtime period after a double exclusion forced a 5-on-5.
Historically, the MPSF has not been an accurate indicator of Cardinal success in the postseason. While Stanford has won five of the last eight NCAA titles, they have been crowned MPSF champions just once in the last 13 years.
Every game this season between the two schools had been decided by just a single point. The programs could not be more evenly matched, as the all-time record sat at 36-36 before this game.
“It’s an interesting matchup in that both teams play really good team defense,” said Stanford head coach John Tanner. “When you get quality opportunities you need to nail them down. The margins are so tight that you will look back at all the misses and bemoan them.”
Playing solid team offense, seven different players rattled the cage in the loss. Sophomores Aria Fischer and Sarah Klass each found the back of the net twice. Seniors Madison Berggren and Kat Klass contributed one goal a piece, while junior Makenzie Fischer and freshman Ryann Neushul also scored.
On the defensive front, the Cardinal were lights out, with redshirt sophomore Emalia Eichelberger blocking nearly everything. She closed the match with a career-best 16 saves, and she helped lead the 6-on-5 defense which negated 13 of the Trojan’s 15 power plays.
“We are a strong defensive team and we held our defensive end really well,” said Eichelberger. “We have to keep hammering it home on offense and that game will be ours next time.”
USC drew first blood a minute into the match, but Stanford soon responded with goals from Aria Fischer and Berggren just 18 seconds apart to pull the Cardinal ahead. A minute later, Kat Klass found her shot to give Stanford a two-goal lead. USC cut it to one in the closing minutes.
Stanford regained the momentum at the start of the second quarter by winning the sprint. Aria Fischer then put the ball in the back of the net for the second time. For the next three minutes, neither team’s offense could best the opposing defense and Stanford held its 4-2 lead.
USC finally found a chink in the armor at the 4:13 mark, and again three minutes later to equalize the game. Makenzie Fischer responded on a 5-meter penalty shot in the following possession to retake the lead. It lasted just 47 seconds before the Trojans made good on a power play for the second time.
The Cardinal were the first to score in the second half, as Sarah Klass drove one in at the 5:17 mark. USC found the tying goal three minutes later, but Neushul responded during the ensuing Stanford possession. The quarter closed with Stanford holding a tentative 7-6 lead.
The fourth quarter began in a stalemate as neither team could best the goalkeepers. Finally, an exclusion three minutes into the quarter gave Stanford an offensive opportunity, which Sarah Klass converted.
A problem in all of their games against highly ranked teams, the Cardinal were unable to close out the game. USC scored off of a long transition pass, and then they were able to negotiate a Stanford exclusion to re-tie the game with three minutes left in regulation.
In the remaining time, Eichelberger made two huge 1-on-1 stops at the 2:45 mark and again with nine seconds left in the game.
“Every game I try to get into that flow state, and today was no different,” said Eichelberger. “I got straight into it and never let it go”
In the first overtime, Neushul almost made the hero goal with a lob shot, but the ball floated on the goal line and was saved before it completely crossed the plane. Stanford never got as good an opportunity as that one for the rest of the game.
In the third period of overtime, when sudden death was initiated, the Cardinal were forced to play defense almost the entire time. The offense barely had a possession, and USC was able to convert its many chances with 43 seconds remaining.
“It was a hard fought game and at sudden death it becomes anyone’s game,” said Eichelberger. “We fought tooth and nail but we just didn’t get it done.”
Stanford will return to action in Avery with the NCAA tournament in two weeks. The seedings will be released on Monday, but it is expected that the Cardinal will be slotted as the No. 2 seed.
Contact James Hemker at jahemker ‘at’ stanford.edu.