In a field as stacked as the field at this weekend’s UC-Irvine Invitational, it was always going to be difficult for the No. 2 Stanford Cardinal women’s water polo team to escape unscathed. The tournament played host to 14 of the top 18 teams in the country, and all four groups represented the cream of the NCAA. Stanford (10-1) would eventually take home third place after beating Pacific and No. 7 Arizona State before losing to No. 3 UCLA in the semis and then recovering to beat No. 4 Cal in the third-place match.
Saturday’s play saw the Cardinal pull off yet another in a series of stellar performances, dismissing Pacific 11-3 in a victory that was all the more sweet because of its lack of intrigue. Stanford scored four unanswered goals in the first quarter and from then on, the result was never in doubt.
The Cardinal was paced by sophomore driver Anna Yelizarova, senior driver Kaley Dodson and junior two-meter Ashley Grossman, each of whom had two goals in the victory. Dodson would go on to score six goals for the day after adding a further four goals against ASU. Unfortunately for the Cardinal, this was about as relaxing as the tournament would get.
The Cardinal followed up that performance with a thrilling and hard-fought victory over Arizona State, in which Sun Devils freshman center Alkistis Benekou had a fantastic day’s play, scoring five against No. 11 San Jose State in the opening-round match before adding another two against Stanford in the quarterfinal matchup.
The two teams were knotted throughout and a clear lead was very difficult to come by before halftime, as goals from Grossman and senior two-meter Annika Dries were immediately pegged back by ASU junior utility player Liz Kreek and junior defender Ao Gao. Stanford’s greater pedigree began to show in the third period, as the Cardinal came out energized after the break and quickly extended its lead to 11-6, but this lead only led to a prolonged period of sloppy play that allowed the Sun Devils to slowly cut into the deficit. Two goals in the final eight seconds made the game’s climax thrilling, but Stanford would hold on to win 11-10.
Stanford moved on toward the semifinals knowing that it would have to play better in order to get past No. 3 UCLA, whom it had defeated 8-4 at the Stanford Invitational earlier this season. However, the Card got off to an awful start and conceded the first three goals of the matchup. That marked the first time all season that Stanford had been down by more than two goals and put the Card in an early hole from which it could never quite recover.
Goals from Dries and freshman driver Jamie Neushul brought the Cardinal within two going into the end of the first period, but by then, the damage had been done and the Cardinal was constantly attempting to erase the deficit. All goals during the rest of the game were alternated and the Cardinal was handed its first loss of the season.
Coming off a loss for the first time all year, attention then turned to how the Cardinal would react in the face of adversity. The answer: positively.
The Cardinal, paced by four goals from sophomore driver Maggie Steffens and a hat trick from Yelizarova, beat local rivals Cal 14-8 in what was an impressive performance considering the feelings of letdown that could have surfaced after being knocked out in the semifinals.
Steffens and Yelizarova were ably supported by Grossman and Neushul, both of whom netted two goals. Stanford held a two-goal lead after the first period and a four-goal lead at halftime, ending the day on a high note and resuming the solid play that had characterized its season thus far. The perfect start might have ended, but the Cardinal showed a steely resolve in knocking off No. 4 Cal.
The Card will now continue non-conference play with a match against No. 11 San Jose State this Saturday and will look to maintain the style of play that has served it so well thus far.
Contact Dylan Fugel at dfugel ‘at’ stanford.edu.