Goal for No. 1 Stanford
is to finish there, too
Women's water polo has never been more popular locally in terms of participation or fan interest. Having the nation's top-ranked college team at Stanford certainly helps.
The Cardinal (26-4 last year) opens its season at the NorCal Invitational Saturday with a game against UC Santa Barbara in Berkeley.
"We haven't done anything yet and we're No. 1 for two straight weeks," Stanford coach John Tanner said. "It is fun to get people talking about it though. We will be good."
Stanford will know more about itself following the Stanford Invitational next weekend, where eight of the top 10 teams in the nation, including the top six, will gather at Avery Aquatic Center.
Stanford's group features No. 2 USC, No. 6 Michigan and No. 8 San Jose State. The other group includes No. 3 Hawaii, No. 4 Cal, No. 5 (and defending national champion) UCLA and No. 10 Arizona State.
"It will be a bruiser of a weekend," Tanner said. "We'll know by halftime of the Super Bowl how we match up with other teams."
The Cardinal also plays San Jose State, Arizona State, UCLA, Hawaii, California and USC in Mountain Pacific Sports Federation competition.
The MPSF tournament, with the winner receiving the automatic berth into the NCAA tournament, will mean even more tough games against top competition.
"To be a great team you have to play against the highest level of competition," Tanner said. "We want to be at the elite level and need those games to push our players to get better and our team to improve."
Stanford hosted an exhibition game with the Canadian National Team last week, the same team that earned a silver medal at the FINA World Aquatic Championships in Rome last summer. Team Canada lost, 7-6, to Team USA in the gold medal game.
The Cardinal has its share of players with international experience, with senior Jessica Steffens heading the list. She played on the U.S. Olympic team in Beijing two years ago.
"She got to the Olympic team by building a reputation as a defensive player," Tanner said. "But she really is a great, all-around skilled, poised, alert player. She can impact a game both offensively and defensively. She stands out."
Steffens, a first-team All-American, scored 12 goals last year in addition to her defensive prowess, which helped the Cardinal limit opposing teams to an average of 6.9 goals a game, while Stanford averaged 12.7 goals.
"She covers so much of the pool that she can affect the way people play," said Tanner.
Steffens, who helped the U.S National Team win the gold medal at the FINA World League Super Finals last July, is one of four seniors who will shape the character of this year's team. Menlo-Atherton grad Kelly Eaton, Kelsey Holshouser and Alex Koran lend experience, leadership and expertise to the process. They also accounted for 100 of the team's 382 goals last year.
"With the four of them we have a lot of things covered," Tanner said. "They work great together and I think we'll reflect that experience. It's a great group of seniors."
Eaton, an honorable-mention All-American, was third in scoring last season with 45 goals and will figure to be even more of a presence offensively this season.
"She's expanding her game," said Tanner, also an M-A grad. "She's worked on her conditioning and strength. She's always been really fast and now she's doing a great job vertically. It will be exciting to see how she plays."
Koran added 29 goals, fifth on the team last year and the third-highest of any returning player. She scored a team-high four goals in Stanford's MPSF tournament opening win over San Diego State.
"She hasn't had much of a history in the water but she is a great athlete," Tanner said. "She's extremely diligent in the weight room and in the pool. She's a talented player."
Holshouser, who spent time coaching youth water polo, scored twice to help Stanford beat Marist in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year.
"Kelsey is a dynamic, quick-witted player," Tanner said. "She has a multi-faceted view of the game. She comes at it as though she can see above the field of play."
While Tanner sings the praises of his seniors, there's no shortage of complimentary words for everybody else on the roster. After all, there are 15 other reasons why the Cardinal starts the year at the top of the poll.
Melissa Seidemann led Stanford with 59 goals last year and was named MPSF Newcomer of the Year en route to being named third-team All-American.
Junior Amber Oland, an all-MPSF pick, returns to mind the goal, with junior Kim Hall giving the Cardinal quality depth at the key position.
Menlo School grad Kim Krueger and Sacred Heart Prep grad Pallavi Menon are two of the eight players who scored at least 20 goals last year and sophomores Alyssa Lo and Cassie Churnside were right behind, each scoring in double figures.
Sophomores Mimi Bury and Monica Coughlan also return with valuable experience.
Sacred Heart Prep grad Vee Dunlevie highlights a cast of freshmen considered one of the top recruiting classes in the nation. Kate Baldoni, Victoria Kennedy, Alexis Lee, Jillian Garton and Annika Dries join Dunlevie as players who could contribute early in their careers.
"We lost some great players but there are a lot of key people back and others ready to step in," Tanner said. "The whole team has improved a lot on defense and we're excited to get going. The seniors are a huge part of what we're building things around and there is plenty of talent to create things individually and as a team."