LOS ANGELES, Calif. – The dynasty talk can officially begin.
Stanford women’s water polo captured its third NCAA title in four years and fourth overall with a 9-5 victory over UCLA Sunday at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center in Los Angeles. The Cardinal (25-1) finished the contest with a 7-0 run over the final 16:19 to overcome a 5-2 deficit.
The NCAA title is also the 105th won by a Stanford team, and extends the school’s national-best streak of years with at least one NCAA title to 38, dating back to the 1976-77.
For Stanford’s senior class of Kaley Dodson, Annika Dries, Kaitlyn Lo, Lexie Ross and Kelsey Suggs, it ended a run since 2010-11 in which the Cardinal went 108-7.
Dries was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player after another dominant two-way effort. Dries led all players with three goals, including the eventual game-winner with 4:51 left in the contest, and on the defensive end helped the Stanford defense shut out the Bruins in the second half for the second straight meeting.
“I’m really proud of [this team]. It seems like game after game we get down and have to fight our way back, and so much of that is on 5-on-6, time after time making those stops,” said Stanford head coach John Tanner. “The story of this team is that they have been comprehensively unified and we’ve just had an incredible weekend down here.”
The Cardinal found itself in a hole with 19 seconds left in the first half when Kodi Hill scored to put UCLA in front 5-2. Stanford, however, got a major lift from Anna Yelizarova just 18 seconds later when the sophomore was on point with her power-play attempt, cutting the halftime deficit to 5-3 and giving the Cardinal a lifeline.
The Cardinal defense eagerly tackled the task of wresting the momentum away from the Bruins as the second half got underway. Behind the work of Dries in front of the goal and a pressing perimeter unit headed by Kiley Neushul, Kaley Dodson and Maggie Steffens, among others, the Cardinal defense stamped out four UCLA power plays, draining the Bruins’ confidence with each kill.
Dries also got the comeback underway on the offensive end, getting free at two meters and finishing past Bruin goalie Sami Hill with 4:52 remaining in the third period to make it 5-4. The defense would siphon off more momentum on the ensuing UCLA possession, as Neushul made a key field block to nullify a Bruin power play. UCLA came up empty on two more extra-attacker situations over the next three minutes, and the Cardinal pounced on the frustration in the final seconds of the period, as Steffens found Ashley Grossman wide open at the far post on a Stanford power play and the junior two-meter fired the equalizer into the open net two ticks before the buzzer.
“Those types of stops are not only preventing goals, but giving our offense momentum,” Dries noted about the power-play kills. “I just remember key people stepping up in those moments and it was inspiring. We had full confidence that whoever was in there was going to get the job done.”
Goalie Gabby Stone opened the fourth period with a key point-blank save of a Kelly Donohoe attempt, further demoralizing the Bruins. With UCLA reeling, the Cardinal moved in on its opponent, and leading the way again was Dries. The Cutino Award finalist took a pass inside between two UCLA defenders, and in a display of strength that has become all too familiar for Cardinal opponents, muscled both Bruins aside and fired home past Hill to give Stanford the one-goal lead.
Dodson further cemented the momentum shift just 26 seconds later, taking advantage of a UCLA defensive miscommunication that allowed the senior driver an open lane right up the middle to Hill. Dodson clinically finished the wide-open look to put the Cardinal in front at 7-5 and force a UCLA timeout.
“That last quarter, there’s a lot of pressure. We were tied, and it was my last eight minutes of water polo and I remember thinking that I better leave it all in the pool because it’s my last competitive game and there’s no stopping us for sure,” Dodson said.
All that remained was the Cardinal defense continuing it’s thorough dismantling of the Bruin attack. More field blocks and steals turned away Bruin possessions, and with 3:28 remaining Steffens scored from the left wing to put the game away. Dries would add her third with 48 seconds remaining to punctuate the victory.
The second half belied a first half in which the Cardinal attack struggled to solve Hill. The UCLA goalie made eight of her 12 saves over the opening 16 minutes, and held the Cardinal scoreless for over eight minutes after Grossman’s opener put Stanford in front 1-0 just 2:45 into the game.
Kelly Ronimus and Alexa Tielmann scored just 1:33 apart in the final minutes of the first to put UCLA in front 2-1, and India Forster’s punch-in made it 3-1 just 54 seconds into the second frame.
Dodson scored her first of the game on the power play for the Cardinal just over five minutes before halftime, but Mackenzie Barr and Kodi Hill got UCLA’s lead to 5-2 later in the period.
UCLA – 2 3 0 0 = 5
Stanford – 1 2 2 4 = 9
Stanford Goal Scorers: Dries 3, K. Dodson 2, Grossman 2, Steffens, Yelizarova
UCLA Goal Scorers: Barr, Forster, Hill, Ronimus, Tielmann
Goalie Saves: Stone 2 (S); Hill 12 (UCLA)