As the saying goes, “Defense wins championships.”
After falling just short of MPSF titles with losses in the 2012 and 2013 championship matches, No. 1 Stanford women’s water polo (22-1, 6-0 MPSF) continued to flex its muscles on defense and was finally able to add a conference title to its long list of accolades over the last several seasons with a 6-5 victory over No. 2 UCLA in the MPSF title match on Saturday.
The Cardinal’s third victory over the Bruins (25-4, 5-1) this season gave them their first conference title since 2006 and the fifth in program history. As the top overall seed in the tournament, the Cardinal earned a first-round bye before defeating No. 4 California in the semifinal to set up the marquee battle between the top two teams in the nation. Stanford has now won both No. 1 versus No. 2 duels in which it has participated this year — both against UCLA in the last three weeks.
The ultimate difference in the matchup came down to Stanford’s ability to take advantage of favorable situations after falling behind early, using three 6-on-5 goals and a converted penalty, coupled with suffocating defense, to overcome a halftime deficit and pull off the comeback.
With neither team having exceeded 10 points in any of the squads’ last three matchups this year, another defensive battle was par for the course. And while the 6-5 final score certainly seemed to imply a defensive struggle throughout the matchup, that was definitely not the case during the first period, in which six of the match’s 11 goals were scored.
Sophomore Maggie Steffens opened the scoring quickly before UCLA scored just 28 seconds later on a power play. Although UCLA proceeded to push ahead 2-1 and later 3-2, Stanford didn’t allow itself to fall behind too significantly early, with equalizers from senior Kaley Dodson and freshman Jamie Neushul to keep the score knotted at the end of the first period.
However, UCLA’s defense — which forced Stanford to tie a season-low in scoring by allowing just six points — buckled down in the second period, holding Stanford scoreless and taking a 5-3 halftime lead on a power-play goal from sophomore Kodi Hill and a late goal from junior Emily Donohoe.
From there, however, it was all Stanford for the rest of the match.
Using a defensive adjustment with double teams on both Donohoe and sophomore Rachel Fattal, it was Stanford’s defense that commanded the second half as it held UCLA’s offense scoreless, giving the powerful and opportunistic offense a fighting chance at mounting the eventual comeback.
With five 30-goal scorers on the offense leading the charge for the Cardinal, it was only a matter of time until Stanford would be able to put more points on the board as the match went on. It started with senior Annika Dries, who brought the Cardinal within one with 4:53 left in the third period. With just more than two minutes left, Stanford drew a five-minute penalty, giving Steffens the opportunity to step up and punch through the match-tying goal.
And in the final period, Stanford was finally able to complete the comeback, using a power play goal from senior Kelsey Suggs to take the lead for good after stifling two power plays from UCLA. Clinging to a one-point lead with 3:55 left to play, Stanford was able to hang on despite one final Bruin power play in the waning seconds of the match. The monumental defensive effort to ice the game included a four-save performance from sophomore Gabby Stone, who continues to impress down the stretch against some of the most powerful offenses in the country.
With the victory, Stanford claimed an automatic berth into the eight-team NCAA Championships from May 9-11 hosted by USC, with the four play-in at-large berths not awarded to conference champions likely going to UCLA, another MPSF team and two more teams. The Cardinal join Princeton (CWPA), Pomona-Pitzer (SCIAC), Wagner (MAAC), UC-San Diego (WWPA) and UC-Irvine (Big West) as conference champions.
The Cardinal will look to return to the NCAA title game for the fifth year in a row and claim its third national championship in the last four seasons when the NCAA Championships kick off in Los Angeles on May 9.
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu.