While much of the rest of the teams throughout the country have gotten underway, the Stanford women’s water polo team gets its first taste of action this weekend, hosting the Stanford Invitational at Avery Aquatic Center.
The Cardinal begins the eight-team draw atop Bracket A, which also consists of No. 5 UC Irvine, No. 6 Hawai’i, and No. 17 UC Davis. Stanford’s first matchup will be against UC Davis Saturday at 8:45 a.m., and the Cardinal is chomping at the bit to see some new faces on the other side of the pool.
“This team is really excited to play. They’re tired of playing against one another and are ready to get going especially considering the quality of competition in this weekend’s tournament,” said head coach John Tanner, who begins his 17th season at the Cardinal helm in 2014.
Tanner, who owns a career record of 380-59 over his 16 years on The Farm, oversees a potent squad that has reached the NCAA Championship Game in each of the past four seasons. After winning national titles in 2011 and 2012, the Cardinal went 29-3 last season but had its goal of a three-peat fall tragically short in a 10-9 quadruple-overtime loss to USC. This weekend’s tournament, which includes games against Hawai’i at 3:30 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m. Sunday against UC Irvine before a place game Sunday afternoon, provides the Cardinal a chance to establish some early goals and pace markers.
“I want to see how we respond to a game setting, how we deal with setbacks, how we connect, and whether we can stay mobile, active, dynamic and controlled. We want to establish an identity as a strong defensive team,” Tanner commented.
In the field, Stanford graduated leading scorer and 2013 Peter J. Cutino Award winner Melissa Seidemann, who netted 75 goals. Despite the loss of Seidemann, the Cardinal offense still returns a vast majority of its offensive production from a year ago, as its second- through ninth-leading scorers are back. That group includes senior two-meter and 2011 Peter J. Cutino Award winner Annika Dries (35 goals in 2013), junior driver and 2012 Peter J. Cutino Award winner Kiley Neushul (50 goals) and 2013 All-American Maggie Steffens (60 goals).
“Melissa did a lot in terms of establishing presence in front of the goal, and that won’t be easy to replace,” Tanner noted. “She was a significant part of the team but we’ve had a lot of people show a desire and ability to replace that defense and interior offense.”
Sophomore Anna Yelizarova aims to build off of a strong freshman campaign in which she scored 46 goals, while seniors Kaley Dodson (31 goals) and Kaitlyn Lo (26 goals) remain important members of the Cardinal rotation.
“All of the players who had significant playing time last year have shown a capacity for an expanded role. Really the whole group came back ready to go,” Tanner said, noting the readiness of his team entering the preseason training.
One difference between the start of last season and this season is the Cardinal’s level of health. Last year, two of the teams top two-meter players, Annika Dries and Ashley Grossman, opened the year on the shelf with injuries, forcing Tanner to get creative with lineups and rotations for the first month of the campaign. So far in the preseason, the Cardinal has been at full-strength and ready to come out of the gate with purpose.
“It’s a huge difference, we just feel more confident in general that we have someone to draw defense,” Tanner said. “Anna Yelizarova did a great job last year of filling in [in the absence of Dries and Grossman] but to have people who are full-time setters in there, it forces opponents to put a lot into defending them.”
On the other end of the pool, Stanford faces the challenge of replacing All-MPSF goalie Kate Baldoni, who graduated in June after backstopping the Cardinal to the 2012 national title and last year’s final. Baldoni played in 20 games last season, boasting an MPSF-best 4.57 goals-against average.
During the fall practices and this January’s preseason training the competition has been between the trio of junior Emily Dorst, sophomore Gabby Stone and freshman Julia Hermann. Last season, Dorst and Stone apprenticed behind Baldoni, each posting a sub-5.00 goals against average over their respective action. Hermann was named CIF San Diego Section Division I Player of the Year in 2013 after a four-year prep career in which she helped lead Torrey Pines High School to three straight section title games from 2011-13.
“Emily and Gabby did a great job last year, and Kate did a wonderful job showing them what it meant to be a Stanford goalie,” Tanner said about the quality of the goalkeeping group. “Julia has come in and she figures stuff out fast. Our goalie crew is really forming a strong identity, and I think we’re going to be good there.”
Hermann is just one of six new faces to the Cardinal roster in 2014. She is joined by drivers Jamie Neushul (Goleta, Calif./Dos Pueblos HS), the younger sister of Kiley, Cassidy Papa (Newport Beach, Calif./Corona del Mar HS), and Jessica Webster (La Jolla, Calif./The Bishop’s School), along with two-meter defenders Dani Jackovich (New Lenox, Ill./Lincoln-Way Central) and Sophia Monaghan (Princeton, N.J./The Lawrenceville School). The group brings a vast amount of prep titles, honors and international experience to the Cardinal.
This year Stanford faces another strong road to the NCAA Tournament, beginning with MPSF foes such as USC, UCLA and California headlining the conference season. The MPSF Tournament and NCAA Tournament both take place in Los Angeles, hosted by USC. In the end, Stanford hopes to once again make that final step to the peak of the mountain and hold the gold NCAA trophy high on May 11.