No. 1 Stanford women’s water polo (25-2, 5-1 MPSF) closed out its season in style on Sunday, claiming the NCAA title with a hard-fought victory over conference rival No. 2 USC (20-4, 6-0 MPSF). Through 32 minutes of unyielding play, the Cardinal managed to contain the Trojans, swimming away with a 10-7 win and the NCAA championship in Ann Arbor’s Canham Natatorium.
The matchup presented a rematch of the MPSF title game just a fortnight ago, in which Stanford clawed its way out of a fourth quarter deficit for an 11-9 win. The conference title gave the Cardinal an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament and landed them the top seed.
In the first two rounds of the NCAA championship tournament, Stanford defeated No. 13 Wagner (35-4, 16-0 MAAC) and No. 4 UCLA (24-6, 4-2 MPSF) en route to its 11th NCAA finals appearance in the last 12 seasons and eighth NCAA title in program history.
Given the two teams’ close match two weeks ago, many anticipated a battle for the 2022 crown. USC 2-meter Mireia Guiral confirmed these expectations with an early goal for the Trojans. Cardinal sixth-year driver Makenzie Fischer responded shortly after with a goal of her own, knotting the score at 1-1.
Two more goals followed for the Trojans, giving them a 3-1 lead until senior 2-meter defender Chloe Harbilas found the net with 21 seconds remaining in the opening period to bring Stanford within a goal.
USC again struck first in the second period, extending its lead to 4-2. However, a valiant defensive effort allowed the Cardinal to hold off their opponents for the rest of the period. On the offensive end, junior driver Ryann Neushul scored for Stanford, narrowing USC’s lead to 4-3 at the half.
Facing a deficit, the Cardinal knew they had their work cut out for them. Fischer made the team’s intentions known, scoring the first goal of the third period to tie the match at 4-4. The two teams quickly locked into a dead heat, exchanging the next several points. Entering the final frame, the Cardinal held a 6-5 lead.
“In the half break, we decided that that’s not the energy we wanted to put forward,” Fischer said in a post-match interview with ESPN. “And I think you saw a whole new team in the second half.”
Like the third quarter, the beginning of the fourth period was a back-and-forth affair. After USC tied the match at 6-6, Fischer found the cage for her third goal of the game to give Stanford a 7-6 lead. The Trojans answered quickly to tie the match for the fifth time that day.
However, that was the last USC goal Stanford would allow, as the Trojans were stifled by the Cardinal defense. In the final three minutes of the match, the NCAA tournament and its season, Stanford was unstoppable, tallying three more goals to earn the 10-7 victory.
Following the match, head coach John Tanner expressed pride in his team’s composure throughout the tight match: “Each time it felt like the game might get away from us, we really stood tall and made one big play after another.”
Tanner praised Fischer, who led the team with four goals. “It was Fisch,” he said. “Those were amazing finishes late in the game.”
Neushul was close behind Fischer with three goals, along with Harbilas, junior 2-meter defender Sophie Wallace and sophomore driver Jewel Roemer, who each contributed a goal. Fischer’s younger sister, redshirt junior 2-meter Aria Fischer, had a game-high three assists.
Winning runs in the family for the Fischer sisters, both of whom are Olympians. Their father, Erich Fischer, is also a former water poloist and Olympian who completed his collegiate career at Stanford. His daughters took gold with the rest of the United States national team in 2016 and 2020, and Sunday’s win marked the second NCAA championship for Aria and the third for Makenzie.
Reflecting on her final collegiate match, Makenzie emphasized the role that mentality played for her and her teammates late in the game, citing some advice the team recently received from American water poloist and Olympian Jessica Steffens ‘09.
“[Steffens] said that you want to make sure that you don’t regret anything when you’re leaving the game, win or lose,” Fischer said. “And I think that’s kind of what we embodied in the end.”
Women’s water polo becomes the second Stanford team to capture an NCAA championship during the 2021-2022 season, following men’s gymnastics’ title in April. The team’s victory caps off a stellar run for the Cardinal and an equally remarkable collegiate career for Makenzie Fischer and the team’s other seniors.