The last time that the Stanford and USC women’s water polo teams met at Aztec Aquaplex in San Diego, the Trojans swam away with a 10-9 victory over the top-seeded Cardinal in the 2010 national championship game.
But when the two squads met yesterday with another title on the line, No. 1 Stanford wasn’t going to let another title slip away.
The defending-champion Cardinal (26-2) got a late goal from senior driver Pallavi Menon and 15 saves from junior goalie Kate Baldoni to edge the Trojans 6-4 and capture Stanford’s third national championship in women’s water polo and 103rd overall. Baldoni’s 29 saves to just nine goals allowed over the tournament won her MVP honors, while Menon capped her Stanford career with seven goals over the weekend.
“We definitely have some bad memories from being here two years ago, but this group, this team has an incredible spirit about them and this amazing attitude,” said head coach John Tanner. “They were relentless today.”
Neither squad led by more than a goal before Menon’s bad-angle shot found the back of the cage with just 1:11 left in the game. Menon and sophomore driver Kaley Dodson each had two goals, with Trojan goalie Flora Bolonyai stifling Menon on a late breakaway in the first half.
“We were really frustrated with some of our missed opportunities,” Tanner said. “We thought we could’ve gotten ourselves a two, three, four-goal cushion, and we just struggled to stay up by one. But Kate was absolutely phenomenal, and finally Pallavi with that last goal to give us some breathing room at a critical time.”
Despite the adversity it faced in the finals, the Cardinal’s road to Sunday’s showdown was a relatively smooth one. Stanford opened its weekend with a 17-5 win over No. 8 Pomona-Pitzer on Friday and a 12-3 victory over fourth-seeded UC-Irvine in the semifinals on Saturday.
Against the Anteaters, freshman Ashley Grossman had a hat trick while Menon and freshman Cory Dodson each tacked on two goals of their own, and the Cardinal held the Anteaters scoreless over a 12:56 stretch of the first half after they had taken an early 1-0 lead.
Trailing for the first time in the tournament, the Cardinal grabbed a 7-2 halftime advantage with a 6-0 run over that same time period, and the squad was perfect on its three penalty shots and went 6-for-10 on the power-play to advance to the final.
USC scored 5:12 minutes into the game to take its only lead, but Menon struck back with a power-play goal just 33 seconds later. Freshman Kiley Neushul, the MPSF Newcomer of the Year, added her third tally of the weekend to grab a 2-1 advantage for Stanford.
Each team tallied in the final minute of the first period, but the back-and-forth affair gave way to a scoreless second frame that saw both goalies make key saves and several Trojan shots bounce safely off the goal post.
The Trojans drew even a minute into the second half, but Kaley Dodson responded with a goal of her own just 10 seconds later to grab a 4-3 lead for Stanford. A minute into the final period USC tied the game again, and yet again it was Kaley Dodson who came up in the clutch with a power-play goal at the 4:13 mark that would end up being the game-winner.
Then it was up to Menon to seal the deal in the final minute and a half.
“I had taken that lob earlier from five [meters], and I was pleased with it, so I just fired it in and really just threw it as hard as I could,” she said. “I saw a little opening, and I was so happy. I looked back and the first person I saw was Kate, out to her waist, so excited. It was great to see that energy from everybody.”
The Cardinal’s senior class of Menon, driver Alyssa Lo, driver Cassie Churnside and defender Monica Coughlan was instrumental in setting the tone for the repeat champions all season long.
“There’s so much vitality,” Tanner said. “Usually the seniors are looking at grad school or their career, and the freshmen add the energy. Our freshmen did have a whole lot of energy, believe me, but our seniors are every bit exuberant, and that really is uncommon in my experience.”
And while the seniors’ contributions were certainly remarkable, Stanford will likely be the odds-on favorite to win a third straight national championship next season. Along with a strong class of incoming freshmen, the Cardinal will get back junior Annika Dries and senior Melissa Seidemann, who both redshirted this season in order to train with the U.S. National Team before this summer’s Olympics.
After the game, Menon was asked how strong the Cardinal will be next year despite the absence of her fellow seniors.
“Oh my gosh, unstoppable,” she said. “They’re only getting better. I’m so excited to watch this team flourish, there’s so much talent.”
Until the 2013 campaign, though, Stanford can be content with the team’s third national title.
“What I’ll remember is just the excitement that these guys created every workout, every chance to be around each other,” Tanner said. “We’re looking forward to the fact that we’re not flying home until tomorrow. We get to spend another evening together.”
And what’s even better — they get to spend it with a brand new trophy.