By James Hemker
For the sixth time in nine years, Stanford women’s water polo is the best program in the country. The second-seeded Cardinal topped No. 1 USC 9-8 in one of the most evenly matched games of the year.
Neither team led by more than a single goal, and there were eight tie scores and five lead changes. Stanford took 26 shots and USC took 25, while both goalies had nine saves.
Junior Makenzie Fischer, who was named tournament MVP, scored three times for her 16th hat trick of the season. She scored 84 goals over the course of the year, which is second-most in school history (93, Ellen Estes 1998).
Named to All-Tournament first team were sophomore Aria Fischer and freshman Ryann Neushul. Each contributed two scores, with Neushul having the game-winner.
Senior Kat Klass was named to the All-Tournament Second Team, and she scored once. Junior Hannah Shabb had the goal of the match, a backhanded strike that gave the Cardinal the lead at a pivotal moment.
“Hannah’s goal was my favorite goal,” said Fischer. “She just played so, so, so tough today. Watching her just go post up someone who was probably bigger than her and whip on the backhand was amazing.”
Redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Emalia Eichelberger was pivotal in the cage with nine saves and four steals. Named to the 2019 All-Tournament First team, she racked up 19 saves over the course of the tourney.
“How was the match? Well my legs are burning,” said Eichelberger. “It was a tough game, but all the technical skills were really hammered in every single day of every single practice.”
USC’s Mireia Guiral opened up the match less than two minutes in. On the ensuing possession, the Cardinal earned a five-meter penalty that Makenzie Fischer was able to convert. The Trojans responded immediately, as Guiral put away her second of the match.
A minute elapsed to the 4:37 mark before the score was equalized off the arm of Neushul. The first quarter ended in a tie, as would the two following quarters.
Stanford took their first lead 55 seconds into the second quarter when Makenzie Fischer buried a ball in the back of the net. The Cardinal could not extend the lead any further before Guiral secured her hat trick for the Trojans, tying up the game again.
Less than a minute later, USC’s Maud Megens, one of the top players in the nation, converted a power play to retake the lead. The following possession for the Cardinal saw the reverse happen as Stanford drew the exclusion, and Aria Fischer made good on it.
The goal of the game then came a minute later with 3:36 remaining in the half. Shabb got the ball down low and made all of USC look silly with a wicked back-handed shot that put Stanford up 5-4. For the Cardinal, it was the emotional spark they needed to stay strong through the rest of the game.
“When you have someone like Hannah step up, it fires up the whole team,” said Neushul. “JT [head coach John Tanner] said at halftime, ‘Hannah that’s exactly what we need in this game.’ That energy gets spread to everyone, and everyone just gets pumped. That goal was more impactful for us than just a goal as a stat. It was huge for us in that moment.”
Undeterred by Stanford’s success, Megens returned the favor, without the flair, to keep the game tied heading into halftime.
Coming out of the break, Aria Fischer was slapped with her second exclusion and the Trojans took advantage of the one-Fischer pool. The Trojans converted three of the 12 power plays they were afforded. Stanford did not fare any better, scoring goals on two of their 11.
Stanford’s advantage came at the five-meter line. Three five-meter penalties were called against the Trojans, and the Cardinal put all of them away. Aria Fischer was handed the ball at the penalty line with 6:09 to go in the third, and she evened the score 6-6.
A series of rapid-fire events followed, starting with Guiral tallying her fourth score of the game. Stanford responded 90 seconds later when Klass whipped a shot as the shot clock expired. The bizarre shot simply rolled across the water, past USC’s keeper, and into the goal.
“That was just a last-ditch effort since the shot clock was winding down,” said Klass. “I just got off from the defender as hard as I could, and I threw it at the goal. I definitely didn’t roll it on purpose, it’s just how it came out.”
USC returned with the ensuing possession to retake the lead 7-8. The next time USC got the ball, Aria Fischer received her third exclusion of the game, sending her to the bench with over 10 minutes of gametime left.
“I’ve been excluded, but never in a game of that caliber,” said Aria Fischer. “My immediate thoughts probably can’t be said, but my second thoughts were, ‘We got this.’ I could feel the energy in the pool, and I saw the look in my teammates’ eyes. I knew they would pull through and step up.”
Though USC had converted on Aria Fischer’s previous two exclusions, they came up short on this 6-on-5, as well as for the rest of the game. A major reason for that was the fact that USC’s Paige Hauschild, their second-best goal scorer, fouled out on a five-meter penalty a minute later.
Makenzie Fischer took the shot and scored, tying the game. On the day, she was two-for-two from the penalty line, an area she had struggled with towards the end of the season.
“I think I did have it in my head that I had been missing a couple,” said Makenzie Fischer. “But in the end I just made sure to get on my legs, take my time, see where I want to go with the ball, and be confident in the spot that I have chosen. It hasn’t necessarily gone well in the past, so I’m happy it worked out today.”
With the score at 8-8, the finals had boiled down to an eight-minute water polo match to decide everything. Despite three straight exclusions against USC, Stanford could not convert anything. Finally, a fourth exclusion gave Neushul enough room to rattle the cage at 4:51.
“Ryann has really stepped up this year and has been a huge member of the team,” said Aria Fischer. “Watching that shot from the bench was amazing. It’s huge for a freshman to have that control over a game.”
The goal would prove to be the game winner as Eichelberger loomed large over USC. Despite getting off two solid attempts in the last 45 seconds, the Trojans were unable to find the equalizer.
“The last shot was a good shot,” said Eichelberger. “But I followed it with my eyes and saw it went wide.”
The program now has seven NCAA titles (2002, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2019), which is tied for most in the country with UCLA. It also increases the school’s total NCAA team championship count to 121, which is the most of any collegiate sports program in the country.
The match also marks the ends of the careers of the four members of the senior class. Klass, Cassidy, Madison Berggren and Mackenzie Wiley all leave the Farm on top of the water polo world as champions.
“I think I found out junior year that we would be hosting,” said Klass. “Knowing that I would play my last games in Avery was really incredible. I didn’t let myself think about what it was going to be like if we won because I didn’t want to jinx it.”
“I definitely would say its a fairytale ending,” added Berggren. “It’s really cool to end our career here in Avery with our hats, our teammates, our staff and everyone else who has helped to get us here.”
Contact James Hemker at jahemker ‘at’ stanford.edu