Last year at this time, the Stanford women's tennis team was gearing up for its improbable run to the NCAA title. Not many observers gave the Cardinal much of a chance after its third-place finish in the Pac-12 Conference.
Fifth-ranked Stanford (8-1 in the Pac-12, 16-1 overall) enters the final weekend of the regular season with a chance to gain at least a share of the conference title and set up another championship run when it hosts No. 10 California at noon Saturday.
Meanwhile, the top-ranked Stanford women's water polo team enters its last regular-season contest with a bit of an edge.
The Cardinal (5-0 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, 19-1 overall) was the fashionable pick to win its third straight national title last year. USC beat Stanford in a memorable NCAA championship contest in sudden-death overtime.
The Cardinal, which hosts No. 4 California on Saturday at 5 p.m., already has clinched the top seed for the MPSF tournament that gets underway April 26 in Los Angeles. There is still plenty at stake when the Bears come to town with ideas of spoiling Stanford's Senior Day celebration.
On the tennis court, the Golden Bears (9-0, 16-4) bring a 10-match winning streak into the contest. The Cardinal was the last team to beat Cal, a 5-2 victory in early March.
The Bears defeated Stanford, 4-3, in last year's regular-season finale and they could be playing with added incentive this time around. Despite their long winning streak, the Bears dropped in the national rankings this week, from No. 6.
California handed UCLA its lone conference loss one day after the Bruins gave Stanford its only setback of the season to date. UCLA (8-1, 20-2) remains ranked No. 2 in the nation.
The Bears, who played Sacramento State in a nonconference match Thursday, feature five nationally ranked players.
Stanford can match those five players, plus one, giving the match a postseason quality to it.
Senior Kristie Ahn, ranked fourth, and freshman Caroline Doyle, ranked No. 39, each have 25-3 records in singles, the best winning percentage (.893) of any of the weekend's 12 singles players.
Doyle puts a 13-match winning streak on the line and that's the second-best streak on the Cardinal. No. 19 Carol Zhao, also a freshman, has won her past 16 matches and is 23-3 overall.
Doyle and Zhao are joined by 34th-ranked Taylor Davidson (21-5) as three of the top freshmen in a nation full of top freshmen. Cal has two of its own in No. 32 Denise Starr (17-8) and No. 67 Maegan Manasse (26-5).
Junior Ellen Tsay (20-5), ranked No. 41, and sophomore Krista Hardebeck (15-9), ranked No. 44, complete the impressive Stanford singles lineup, with senior Amelia Herring and sophomore Lindsey Kostas providing depth.
Cal counters with junior Zsofi Susanyi (22-9) at No. 21, senior Anett Schutting (22-10) at No. 23, sophomore Lynn Chi (26-8) at No. 28 and sophomore Klara Fabikova (26-9).
Both squads also feature an undefeated (in dual meets) doubles team among their respective nationally ranked pairs.
Manasse and Starr are 9-0 for the Bears, while Ahn and Zhao are 14-0 for the Cardinal (24-2 overall and winners of 17 straight).
Davidson and Tsay have won 13 of 14 doubles matches and Doyle and Hardebeck have won 10 of 12.
The postseason starts next Thursday with the Pac-12 Championships in Ojai. The NCAA tournament gets underway on May 9, with the first two round likely to be held at Stanford before moving to Athens, Ga., for the quarterfinals and beyond.
The Stanford-California women's water polo rivalry, meanwhile, has been a one-sided affair over the past 14 years as the Cardinal has won the past 36 meetings and not lost to the Golden Bears since March 26, 2000. Stanford beat Cal, 14-8, in the UC Irvine Invitational on Feb. 23.
Cal can clinch the fourth seed of the upcoming conference tournament with a win. Otherwise the Bears will meet Arizona State in the first round. Stanford meets the winner of that match.
"Every Stanford athlete expects a lot of themselves," Stanford coach John Tanner said. "They expect to be great. All our athletes are engaged. They think about water polo a lot. They are focused on getting better and winning a championship. You are always expected to succeed every year."
UCLA is the No. 2 seed after beating the host Trojans, 6-4, on Wednesday. San Jose State and Cal State Bakersfield make up the rest of the field.
Stanford's five seniors will take center stage Saturday. Olympic gold medalist Annika Dries, the Peter J. Cutino Award winner in 2011, leads a group that will be seeking its third national title in four years. (Dries missed one of the title runs while helping Team USA, with Maggie Steffens and Cardinal grad Melissa Seidemann, win the gold medal at the 2012 London Games).
Kaley Dodson, Kaitlyn Lo, Lexie Ross and Kelsey Suggs will join Dries in being honored for their contributions to the Cardinal over the past four years.
"Kaley is athletic, balanced and a fast player," Tanner said. "Lo is explosive, Lexie is rock solid, really an amazing player. Kelsey, as a defender, is so knowledgeable and so poised. Annika is a terrific player and is the vocal point of our offense. She has really expanded that two-meter position."
Junior driver Kiley Neushul, who was named the Cutino Award winner in 2012, leads Stanford with 41 goals, one of five players with at least 30 on the season.
Steffens, who led the world in scoring as an Olympian in 2012, has scored 37 times, and Anna Yelizarova has 32.
Two-meter players Ashley Grossman and Dries give the Cardinal an unmatched inside threat, scoring 38 and 36 goals so far this season, respectively.
In her first season as the Cardinal's No. 1 goalie, sophomore Gabby Stone has proven her mettle against the nation's top competition. She ranks fourth in the MPSF with a 6.13 goals-against average and has anchored the Cardinal defense in key wins over top teams. Against USC on March 30, Stone made 12 saves in Stanford's 9-5 win, and followed that with seven saves, including a crucial stop of a Bruin penalty shot, in April 11's 9-8 win at No. 2 UCLA.
California (2-3, 17-6) lost to the Sun Devils last week, and is 4-5 over its previous nine games.
California is by the MPSF's leading scorer, Dora Antal, who averages 3.15 goals per game and has 63 goals total. In the cage, Madeline Trabucco owns a goals-against average of 8.00.