Sports

Stanford women's water polo opens with eye on title shot

The Stanford women's water polo team, which opens its season Saturday morning in the Stanford Invitational, lost last year's Peter Cutino Player of the Year Award winner to graduation.

But, that leaves two other Cutino Award winners still on the roster in senior Annika Dries and junior Kiley Neushul.

Stanford also lost an Olympic gold medalist to graduation (well, so OK, it's the same person) and still has two others on the roster in Dries and sophomore Maggie Steffens.

Dries is one of five seniors on a team that has reached the NCAA championship match in each of the past four seasons, winning it all twice and losing in four overtimes last year.

In Dries' previous three seasons (she took her redshirt year in 2012 for the Olympics), Stanford has accumulated an 83-7 record. The four other seniors Kaitlyn Lo, Lexie Ross, Kelsey Suggs and Kaley Dodson aren't far behind with their 80-6 record the past three years combined.

Dries, Dodson, Steffens and Neushul were named to the All-American team last year, along with the graduated Melissa Seidermann, last year's Cutino Player of the Year and member of the gold-medal Olympic team.

The Cardinal, which opens the season ranked second in the nation to defending NCAA champion USC, expects to play in the championship game again this year. In fact, it's been Stanford's expectation from the moment John Tanner (380-59 overall record) was hired 17 years ago.

"Every Stanford athlete expends a lot of energy wanting to be great," said Tanner, a 1982 graduate of Stanford and former All-American men's water polo player. "These athletes are energized. They think about water polo a lot and they are very focused on winning a championship."

Dries and Steffens benefited from having practiced full-time in the year leading up to the Olympics and that remains a tangible asset. Neushul, then just a freshman, stepped into the spotlight in 2012, when the Cardinal players surprised everybody but themselves by winning the national title.

The Trojans won in sudden death last year with one of the top coaches in the nation, an Olympic silver medalist and a U.S. National Team member.

UCLA and California are also among the elite, with several other programs knocking on the door, most of them in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.

"The bar is raised every year," Tanner said. "There are more foreign players and the depth throughout the Top 25 has improved."

UC Irvine and Arizona State are examples of teams with aspirations of reaching the Final Four. The Sun Devils play in the MPSF.

Stanford has a pair of Canadian athletes in sophomores Gurpreet Sohi and Anna Yelizarova, who proved to be a valuable contributor for the Cardinal, which finished 29-3 last year and went undefeated in conference play a fourth straight year.

The senior class has scored a combined 330 goals so far. Dries has 135 of them and Dodson needs eight more to reach 100. That doesn't include Neushul's 108 goals over her first two seasons.

Junior Ashley Grossman adds 70 to the total, while Steffens scored 60 as a freshman and Yelizarova scored 46.

Offense will not be a problem for Stanford. But then, the Cardinal led the MPSF in defense, too.

"At times we were not that determined on defense and gave up soft goals," Tanner said. "We also struggled against great teams to make things happen. My focus for the team is to show up and play tough. I think the group is focused on what do we need to do now, and establishing a mindset from the first practice. We've trained very well."

Menlo-Atherton grad Emily Dorst, a junior, is one of three goalies who will see playing time this weekend as Tanner continues to evaluate that position. Dorst was one of Kate Baldoni's backup last season.

"She's playing very well," Tanner said. "She's an amazing athlete who is comfortable 5-on-6 and 6-on-6. She passes from the goal well and moves from the goal well. She's one of the most reliable players we have on the team."

Dorst, who recorded 22 saves last year, will share time with sophomore Gabby Stone (80 saves last season) and freshman Julia Hermann.

Junior Cory Dodson (12 goals last year, including three in NCAA competition), Sohi (14), and sophomores Rachel Johnson and Melena Masson add experience for the Cardinal.

In addition to Hermann, freshman Dani Jackovich is expected to see significant playing time this weekend. The Illinois state Player of the Year, Jackovich has played in the U.S. National Team program.

Jamie Neushul, Jessica Webster, Sophia Monaghan and Cassidy Papa all come to Stanford with U.S. national team credentials, as well.

"They have lived up to expectations," Tanner said. "It's a diverse group who arrived ready and excited."

Stanford meets UC Davis at 8:45 a.m. on Saturday in its opener and is also scheduled to play Hawaii at 3:30 p.m. The championship game is Sunday in Avery Aquatic Center at 3:30 p.m., with third place decided at 2:15 p.m.

STANFORD INVITATIONAL

Saturday (group play)

Avery Stadium

8:45 a.m. -- Stanford vs. UC Davis

10 a.m. -- Hawaii vs. UC Irvine

3:30 p.m. -- Stanford vs. Hawaii

4:45 p.m. -- UCLA vs. California

Belardi Pool

8:45 a.m. -- UCLA vs. Michigan

10 a.m. -- California vs. San Jose State

3:15 p.m. -- UC Irvine vs. UC Davis

4:30 p.m. -- San Jose State vs. Michigan

Sunday (group play)

Avery Stadium

8 a.m. -- Stanford vs. UC Irvine

9:10 a.m. -- California vs. Michigan

Belardi Pool

8 a.m. -- Hawaii vs. UC Davis

9:10 a.m. -- UCLA vs. San Jose State

Consolation/Championship games

Belardi Pool

1 p.m. -- Seventh place (A4 vs. B4)

Avery Stadium

1 p.m. -- Fifth place Game (A3 vs. B3)

2:15 p.m. -- Third place (A2 vs. B2)

3:30 p.m. -- Championship (A1 vs. B1)

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