MPSF Championship Game (April 27) - Stanford 6, UCLA 5
National Collegiate Championship First Round (May 9) - Stanford 18, Indiana 2
National Collegiate Championship Semifinal (May 10) - Stanford 12, California 8
National Collegiate Championship Final (May 11) - Stanford 9, UCLA 5
Stanford’s quest for a fourth NCAA women’s water polo championship actually began last fall during rigorous off-season training workouts. They intensified in January, when head coach John Tanner pushed his players even harder to prepare for the Feb. 1 opener against UC Davis.
“The toughest days of training are in the winter quarter,” he said this week. “The players are taking more and tougher classes and don’t play until February. It’s a month of crank-it-out training. Those are the days you have to perform to prepare yourself for the demands of the season.”
The top-ranked Cardinal answered the call, reeling off nine straight wins. Then came an unsettling 9-6 loss to UCLA at the UCI Invitational. It was both a wakeup call and the turning point of the season.
“After that loss, we had a team meeting, stepped back and made promises to be there for each other through the good and the bad,” said senior co-captain Lexie Ross, a human biology major. “That became our MO: when we were down, we relished it.”
Playing with a new sense of commitment and togetherness, Stanford closed the season with 16 consecutive victories, culminated by last Sunday’s 9-5 victory against UCLA in the NCAA title game. True to form, the Cardinal fell behind 5-2, then dominated the second half, holding the Bruins scoreless.
“I kind of expected the team to freak out and start yelling,” Ross said of the early deficit. “But we called timeout and had a critical 5-on-6 and everyone came over and it was eerily calm. JT might have been smiling, actually. At that moment, I realized it didn’t matter if we were down by three or five; we were just going to take it step by step. It was just methodical the way we chipped away.”
Actually, it was part of a season-long strategy Tanner employed to enable his depth to wear down opponents in the second half.
“We’ve been behind or tied in most of our big games, so it wasn’t anything new,” he said. “It’s not the plan!
“Teams know they have to bring their A-game against us. Mentally, they are relaxed and feeling like they have nothing to lose. So teams played their best against us early in games.
“The other part of it, in the first half, we used 12-14 players, many of whom are playing a role, often just a match-up thing. Their job is to deliver a shift of great minutes and focus on a couple things and people really embraced that.”
The Cardinal also trailed against Cal after the first quarter in the NCAA semifinals, then settled in to post a 12-8 win.
“Really our second half is set up by our first half,” said Tanner. “Cal wasn’t moving as fast and you didn’t hear the water chopping. They weren’t speaking as much, they weren’t as animated, and our team just sensed it.”
Tanner left nothing to chance during the season. Convinced that his team would likely face host USC or UCLA en route to the finals, he borrowed a page out of the playbook of David Shaw, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football, and played loud music during practice.
“We had a fairly good feeling that we would end up playing an L.A. team,” Ross said. “We would blast the USC fight song during practice because we wanted to get used to it and enjoy hearing that song. We were trying to train ourselves.”
On the bus ride from Palo Alto to Los Angeles, Tanner played a memorable video to get his players in the right frame of mind.
“We have a connection with other teams here who have had great success in Los Angeles,” he said. “On the way down, we watched the greatest upset ever (the Stanford football team, a 41-point underdog, beat USC 24-23 in 2007). Our title game was at USC, but it was packed with UCLA fans. So that makes it really satisfying that we did in a really challenging environment.”
Tanner also warned his players they would likely encounter a speed bump or two along the way, and to be prepared for anything. The first came the week before the NCAA’s, when starting freshman driver Jamie Neushul was injured in practice.
“She’s been such a huge part of our team this entire season,” said Ross. “For it to happen in the middle of practice – it could have happened to anyone. It was sad and scary. She had been playing with her sister (Kiley) the entire season. Jamie was so strong and such a trooper. She made it clear she didn’t want us worrying about her, that she would be fine and we needed to go out there and fight.”
Then came the next hurdle. When Cardinal players went out to board the team bus Sunday morning for the ride to the pool for the NCAA final, it wouldn’t start.
“At that point, it was just funny,” Ross said. “There were five taxis waiting. Not one person on the team was upset or stressed. I saw smiling and laughter the entire time. I think we got there faster, too. We might have gone through a couple of reds.”
Stanford’s pre-game preparation was reduced 15 minutes, but nobody panicked.
“We talked about what we would do in a situation like that and everyone adjusted their routine,” said Tanner. “No big deal.”
Which is what separates this team from his other NCAA champs.
“I think it’s our resilience and sense of humor,” he said. “Just their mental endurance. Each time we had a setback, they would just kind of stand back and clear it.”
Coaches often struggle naming outstanding players because it’s a team sport and they don’t want to slight anyone. But Tanner gave special mention to senior driver Kaley Dodson.
“In many ways she has been our MVP and the person who flips the switch,” Tanner said. “She provides the electricity.”
He also felt tremendous support from his former players, including last year’s goalie, Kate Baldoni. She was part of a team that lost in the NCAA title game to top-ranked USC 10-9 in five overtimes and was MVP of the 2012 NCAA championship team.
“She got in her car on a whim Sunday morning and drove down to be at the game,” said Tanner. “She watched with (former All-American) Brenda Villa. That was really gratifying.”
And then there was the streak. Tanner and his players were well aware that Stanford was trying to extend its NCAA-record for winning at least one team championship to 38 straight years. Although women’s tennis and women’s and men’s golf still have hopes of winning NCAA titles, the women’s water polo program knew many were counting on them.
“Our kids don’t focus on things like that, but [junior goalie] Emily Dorst’s dad, Chris works in the department and was the goalie on the team that won the trophy that started this whole 38-year streak,” Tanner said. “We talked about it at a meeting.”
Ironically, Chris, a two-time All-American goalkeeper at Stanford, attended last Sunday’s final and was an analyst on the webcast.
After the win, Stanford players gathered in the hotel room of associate head coach Susan Ortwein and shared their feelings.
“It was a chance to reflect on the game, the season and pretty much anything you could reflect on,” said Ross. “Some people were crying, some people were laughing. It was very calm.”
When the team bus returned to campus at Pac-12 Plaza Monday morning, about 75 employees of the Stanford Athletic Department and well-wishers were there to greet it. It was a scene Ross will never forget.“That was so cool,” she said. “I didn’t really know what to expect. To pull into the parking lot and see this huge group of people cheering for us and giving us high-fives, people I’ve never met before in my life, it was just so exciting. In that moment I was so proud to bring the championship to Stanford. I felt like an Olympic torch bearer, lighting the flame, like I was bringing it home.”