By James Hemker
In a game that ran the full gamut of emotion, No. 2 women’s water polo overcame No. 3 UCLA in an 8-7 overtime thriller. Stanford and No. 1 USC will face each other in the NCAA finals for the third time in four years.
Sophomore Aria Fischer willed the Cardinal to victory with five of Stanford’s eight goals. She has now scored ten goals through two games in the tournament.
“She played great didn’t she,” said head coach John Tanner. “And you know the thing with her is that she scores goals, but she was also sensational on defense.”
Senior Kat Klass, junior Makenzie Fischer and freshman Ryann Neushul each scored as well.
Redshirt sophomore Emilia Eichelberger came away with the win, blocking seven shots over the course of the game.
Stanford erupted from the first whistle, scoring five straight goals over the first two periods. Aria Fischer’s first two goals sandwiched Klass’s score, and then Makenzie Fischer made it four goals in as many minutes.
A full eight minutes then passed before Aria Fischer claimed her hat trick half way into the second quarter.
For UCLA, the position looked dire to everyone but the team itself. In the two schools’ regular season matchup, the Cardinal also jumped to an early four-goal lead that UCLA then erased. While the Bruins ultimately lost that game 6-7, they clearly had the ability to mount a comeback. And comeback they did.
The possession after Aria Fischer’s third goal, the Bruins finally got on the board by converting a 6-on-5. For UCLA, the goal opened the floodgates and began a 6-0 run over the course of the next two and a half quarters.
“We looked really fabulous at the beginning and then we got really out of rhythm,” said Tanner. “From there, we were in a constant uphill fight.”
The second goal came on another Bruins power play with less than 15 seconds left in the half. Less than two minutes into the third, UCLA struck again. Another 90 seconds passed before UCLA’s fourth goal slipped past Eichelberger. Stanford’s five-goal lead was erased at the 3:55 mark in the third quarter when UCLA converted their third 6-on-5.
The third quarter ended in a 5-5 tie and the beginning of the fourth quarter was marred for Stanford by foul troubles. Five consecutive exclusions were called against the Cardinal, and on the fifth, the Bruins scored. With just 4:11 left in the game, the Bruins took the lead for the first time.
Four of the six UCLA goals came off of power plays, but overall Stanford held strong with their man-down defense, as the Bruins had 17 total opportunities. On offense, the Cardinal capitalized on two of their eight power plays.
Living up to the Stanford student section chants of “She has a [Olympic] gold medal,” Aria Fischer scored the equalizer from six meters away with 2:35 left on the clock. Regulation ended without any more goals and the teams entered overtime.
“We finally got that goal to reset ourselves,” said Tanner. “It took a heroic effort in overtime to then establish a lead and finally get back to a two-goal lead.”
Though UCLA won the sprint, the Cardinal put up a big defensive stop, and the ball found its way back to Aria Fischer, who scored her fifth and final goal to put Stanford back on top. A minute later, Neushul rattled the cage with an insurance goal that extended the lead to two, 8-6.
The second period of overtime saw UCLA create a goal with just under a minute left, however Neushul fired off another shot which UCLA’s keeper Carlee Kapana was forced to tip out of bounds, meaning the Cardinal could keep possession and run out the clock.
“Hats off to UCLA,” said Tanner. “They were valiant to say the least. They were incredibly courageous throughout, but the resilience shown by our team was really impressive.”
Stanford extends its own NCAA record of 10 consecutive women’s water polo finals appearances. In the finals, Stanford will face its toughest and most familiar foe in USC. This season, the Trojans have taken two of the three meetings, including the MPSF Championship on April 28 in Avery.
“It’s clear that the rivalry between USC and Stanford runs deep,” said Neushul. “We came into the tournament wanting to play USC. We’ve been trading games all year. We know their personnel, and we’ve seen them three times this year. This is the matchup we are most excited for, and we are ready to go. We want this.”
First sprint is set for 3 p.m. PST tomorrow in Avery Aquatic Center.
Contact James Hemker at jahemker ‘at’ stanford.edu.