Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - May 16, 2014

Stanford's goal pays off with a title

Overtime loss in last year's NCAA water polo finals spurred Cardinal women to national crown

by Rick Eymer

Stanford women's water polo coach John Tanner remained unflustered through some difficult moments of Sunday's NCAA championship against UCLA. He'd seen his team respond to adversity before.

The seeds of Stanford's 9-5 victory over the Bruins in the national title game at USC were sowed moments after the top-ranked Cardinal (25-1) lost in quadruple overtime in last year's championship match.

It was all about winning a championship and Stanford stayed on course throughout the season. With senior Annika Dries soldiering one of the toughest positions in sports like a general, the Cardinal kept playing even after getting down by three goals with less than 20 seconds remaining to play in the first half.

"It seems like game after game we get down and have to fight our way back," said Tanner, who said he did not deliver a halftime speech. "I'm so proud of these guys for their resilience. It was being down and playing 5-on-6 and coming up with stops."

Dries scored three times, including the go-ahead goal midway through the fourth quarter, but she kept insisting that it was the inspiration of her teammates that carried the Cardinal.

"Seeing key people step up in those defensive moments was inspiring," Dries said. "We had full confidence that whoever was in there was going to get the job done."

In other words, it wasn't about any one individual, it was about the support each gave their teammates.

Anna Yelizarova and Ashley Grossman, arguably, scored the game's biggest goals. Yelizarova scored with two seconds left in the first half and Grossman scored the tying goal with one second left in the third quarter.

"Those are huge momentum-builders," Tanner said. "Critical moments to be get back into the game. It's just a matter of these guys doing what they do all the time. We set the second half up with what we did in the first half. We got great contributions from throughout our lineup and then we turn Kaley (Dodson) loose on them. We've turned a bunch of games by turning her into a primary defender. She's an absolute lock down, and we can press and we can counterattack. It's something that has gone under appreciated and has been accruing throughout the course of the game."

Grossman and Dodson each scored twice for Stanford, which scored seven consecutive goals after falling behind, and did not allow another goal against.

"I remember thinking, going into the final period tied, there were eight minutes of water polo left and I better leave it all in the pool," Dodson said. "Nothing was going to stop us, that's for sure."

Stanford goalie Gabby Stone and the Cardinal defense came up big in the second half. Stone, who made three saves, recorded one huge save that stopped a Bruins' power-play opportunity.

Dries, named the tournament MVP, scored from the two-meter slot at the 4:52 mark of the third quarter and Grossman scored a beautiful goal on the power play with two seconds left to tie the game entering the final period.

Maggie Steffens and Kelsey Suggs were moving the ball quickly just before Steffens found Grossman, who delivered with her backhand.

"When you see a teammate going for it right beside you, that's inspiring," Dries said. "I look over and see Kaley grinding away at the counterattack. I think everybody stepped up in their own way."

The senior class can make a clear class as the best yet to go through Stanford. Dodson, Dries, Suggs, Kaitlyn Lo and Lexie Ross helped the Cardinal to an overall record of 108-7, and is the only senior class to be part of three national championships.

"We've had wins before but it wasn't going to mean anything unless we tore them apart," Dodson said. "I was thinking about it. All the wins in the past would not have mattered unless we won this one."

Steffens and Kiley Neushul joined Dries on the all-tournament team for the Cardinal. Menlo-Atherton grad Becca Dorst, who plays for UCLA and is the older sister of Stanford goalie Emily Dorst, also was named to the all-tournament team.

"That was awesome," Tanner said. "These guys were sensational. This championship game, in my mind, started in February with a loss to UCLA. We owe them a lot for forcing us to get better. The story of this team is they have been comprehensively unified."

Grossman gave Stanford the early lead with a goal just under three minutes into the contest. The Cardinal later missed a penalty shot.

The Bruins tied the score with a lob into the net with three minutes left in the first period and took the lead with 1:28 remaining.

The Bruins added a goal in the first minute of the second period when Stone came out of the net after a loose ball and India Forster was able to slap it past her for the goal.

Dodson, who was also came up with several critical defensive plays in the final period, scored with 5:07 left in the first half but UCLA responded with a goal 21 seconds later.

"Our team has been cohesive this year," Dodson said. "Defense has been our mentality the whole way through the season. It certainly served us well this game and I'm proud of it."

Kodi Hill gave the Bruins a 5-2 lead when she scored on a spectacular long throw that just beat the shot clock with 19 seconds left.

Yelizarova's ensuing power-play goal brought the Cardinal within 5-3 at halftime and helped set the stage for the final celebration.

The national title also extended Stanford's NCAA record of winning at least one national championship for 38 consecutive school years.

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