title is sweet
The second time around had to feel even sweeter for Stanford women's water polo coach John Tanner. After all, it's been a long wait and the game has dramatically changed in nine years.
Tanner points to his roster, full of youth and determination. He points to the senior leadership of Menlo School grad Kim Krueger and Amber Oland and Kim Hall.
He can also point to U.S. National Team members Melissa Seidemann and Annika Dries, two strong, dynamic players who can alter a game at any moment.
Best of all, he can point to the national championship trophy as a beacon of teamwork, and dedication to each other. The trophy symbolizes Stanford's second NCAA title, and the first since 2002.
The top-ranked and top-seeded Cardinal completed its best season ever with a 9-5 victory over second-seeded California in the NCAA national championship game at Canham Natatorium in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Sunday.
"It was great. It was really fun," Tanner said. "That was an exciting day, a wonderful game, we played great; a terrific feeling."
Stanford reached the title match four times since winning its last championship, and the Cardinal was turned away, each time in gut-wrenching fashion.
It was as though the returning players from last year's disappointment simply said enough was enough. This was their time.
Dries, named the tournament MVP, led the way with five goals. She had three (of the team's four) by halftime.
"We planned to give her the ball," Tanner said. "They don't have defenders who can match up with her. I don't think anyone does in the world. She was unreal."
Krueger, Alyssa Lo, Seidemann and Pallavi Menon also scored for the Cardinal. With offensive success from outside, Dries was allowed to work her magic inside.
"She was so explosive, so determined, with two, three, four people on her, of putting the ball in the goal," Tanner said. "Our whole team did a great job of setting her by scoring some outside shots. That opened her up, gave her that extra split second she needed to score."
Oland recorded 11 saves as the Cardinal once again played suffocating defense, whether at full strength or 5-on-6.
"Our seniors were unreal, all over the pool," Tanner said. "The two seniors, Amber and Kimbo (Krueger), played their two best games yesterday and today."
Stanford (28-1) adds the 2011 title to its 2002 crown, and claimed its 31st consecutive victory over California, to which the Cardinal has not lost since March 26, 2000.
Stanford knew the magic was working when Oland stopped a five-meter penalty shot with 55 seconds left in the first half. She cleared the ball off the line with just inches to spare, setting up Dries for a score with 38 seconds left.
Dries also scored 24 seconds into the third period. Seidemann converted a five-meter penalty shot with 5:58 to go in the period and Stanford went ahead, 6-1.
The Bears were held scoreless over the final 4:16 and Dries' final goal, with 2:15 left to play, all but sealed it.
Oland made one final save with seconds remaining and ran out the clock even as the bench players, and coaches, were beginning their celebratory group leap into the pool.
Krueger, Oland and Seidemann joined Dries on the All-Tournament First Team.
The sport has gained in quantum leaps since the NCAA began sponsoring it for the 2001 season. As a result, Stanford found itself playing against better competition more often. The two at-large bids both went to MPSF teams.
Like 2002, Stanford was upset in the MPSF tournament by UCLA. This time, though, there was no measure of revenge as California beat the Bruins in the national semifinal. The Cardinal did, however, beat defending national champion USC in the semifinals, extracting some revenge for last year's championship loss.
Those things just didn't seem to matter when the final buzzer went off though. Stanford, which also won the school's 101st overall NCAA title, was too busy being happy.