It doesn’t look like there’s any team in this country that can stop Stanford women’s water polo right now.
With the Pac-12 Networks in the house for the annual installment of the Big Splash, No. 1 Stanford (20-1, 6-0 MPSF) claimed its 37th consecutive victory over rival No. 4 California (17-7, 2-4) by a score of 9-6 on Senior Day at Avery Aquatic Center. In doing so, the Cardinal defeated their fourth top-five opponent in their last five matches to end their regular season on perhaps the most dominant streak in the nation.
Although Stanford had already clinched the top seed in the upcoming MPSF Tournament with its blowout victory over Cal State-Bakersfield a week ago, Saturday offered the five departing seniors on the team — Kaley Dodson, Annika Dries, Kaitlyn Lo, Lexie Ross and Kelsey Suggs — the opportunity to extend Stanford’s winning streak over its cross-Bay rival in their final regular-season home match and keep the ball rolling heading into the tournament.
The match itself was a tale of two halves for the teams, with both offenses getting off to good starts in the first half before the defenses dominated the second half. Although Stanford took a quick 4-1 lead after the first quarter on the back of goals from the Neushul sisters, sophomore driver Maggie Steffens and sophomore driver Anna Yelizarova, the Bears pushed back and made it a close match late in the first half.
Senior Ashley Young scored a goal for the Bears and freshman Dora Antal punched in another to add to her conference-leading 64 goals on the season as Cal refused to lie down, trimming the deficit to 4-3. With Stanford and Cal alternating two goals each in the remainder of the first half, the 6-5 halftime score looked to give the Bears a fighting chance at the upset heading into the second half.
But Stanford’s defense, led by sophomore goalkeeper Gabby Stone, put those chances to rest after the break.
After a monumental performance in which she netted 17 saves in Stanford’s victory over then-No. 1 USC almost a month ago, Stone has been fantastic between the bars down the stretch against some of the most explosive offenses in the nation, and that certainly showed on Saturday.
Stone added nine more saves against Cal and limited the Bears to just one goal in the second half, which the Cardinal needed as Cal freshman goalie Madeline Trabucco also buckled down and made some fantastic saves in the second half to limit the Cardinal offense in a third period in which both offenses combined for just one goal. That goal, which came on a fast break after a Cardinal steal by Dries, gave junior Ashley Grossman her second goal of the game to give Stanford a 7-5 lead and some breathing room.
Cal’s Young almost got the Bears back in the match midway through the fourth period when she was able to get off a skip shot that skidded off the crossbar. After that, the remainder of the fourth period went much more smoothly for the Cardinal offense, with Yelizarova and Dries both netting power-play goals over a two-minute period late in the match to give Stanford a four-point lead that Cal was unable to surmount.
The fact that seven different players scored on the evening for the Cardinal was again indicative of a strong offense characterized by a diversity of scoring, with two 40-goal scorers in Grossman and Kiley Neushul and three more knocking on the door with over 30 goals apiece in Dries, Steffens and Yelizarova.
With the win, Stanford’s defense extended its impressive streak of limiting opponents to single digits in goals to 12 matches, while the Cardinal as a team extended their winning streak to a season-high of 11 matches.
And as icing on the cake after a hard-fought rivalry match, Stanford found out afterwards that No. 2 USC — which many had expected to be Stanford’s toughest opposition for the national title — had been toppled by No. 3 UCLA, which Stanford had already defeated a week earlier.
Thus, going into next weekend’s MPSF Tournament, Stanford should not only be a heavy favorite to claim its first conference championship since 2006, but also should be the top-ranked team in the nation by a wider margin and the team to beat moving forward into the postseason.
As the top seed, Stanford will receive a first-round bye in this weekend’s MPSF Tournament and will play in the semifinals at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday against the winner of the match between No. 4 Cal and No. 5 San Jose State.
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu.