NCAA title sparks talk of a three-peat
Stanford women lose four seniors, but will add Olympians to water polo championship team
Melissa Seidemann and Annika Dries were never really that far away. The Stanford women's water polo team missed their physical presence but the two former Cardinal All-Americans, who took a year off from school to train with the U.S. National Team, never stopped communicating.
After Stanford beat USC, 6-4, in last Sunday's national championship game game, giving the Cardinal its second consecutive NCAA title, Stanford junior goalie Kate Baldoni and senior Pallavi Menon could start talking about them — as teammates.
"Melissa texted me, giving me a little pump-up," Baldoni said. "I responded, 'Mel, you're such a huge part of this team and I want to be able to hear you in the stands. You're always with us.' It's so great, because they've come to more than just this tournament. They're at every game they can possibly be at, which is great for our team and I'm so excited to have them back next year."
So excited that they were invited to join in the postgame celebration on Sunday at San Diego State. And both obliged, even though they were in street clothes.
Stanford loses four seniors from its two-time NCAA championship team next year, including Menon, the Sacred Heart Prep grad who scored the critical goal for the Cardinal with just over a minute remaining to play.
Alyssa Lo, Monica Coughlan and Cassie Churnside also played their final game for Stanford. But, the program will not be lacking for talent next year.
In addition to Seidemann and Dries, who were both finalists for the Peter Cutino Award last year, which eventually went to Dries, there's Maggie Steffens, who delayed coning to Stanford for a year to work with the national team. Her older sister, Jessica, also sat out a year to play in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
"They are always in the back of our minds," Menon said. "We miss them so much. But to be able to share this championship with them was incredible. I can't wait to watch them when they are Stanford students again next year."
Menon thinks the Cardinal can still improve, too.
"They're only getting better," Menon said. "They're going to flourish. There is so much talent, the freshmen coming in next year, the freshmen this year who will be sophomores next year, and with Kate in the goal and her confidence, they'll really be unstoppable."
Before talk of a three-peat, though, UCLA also missed an important player this season in goalkeeper Sami Hall and it was the Bruins who handed Stanford both of its losses this year. USC was also a young team with plenty of potential.
There's an interesting photograph that came out of the celebration, showing Stanford assistant coach Kyle Utsumi and Menon near by, both smiling and both very, very wet.
Utsumi, a former Menlo School coach, was Menon's first water polo coach with the Stanford club team.
"This group has an incredible spirit about them," Stanford coach John Tanner said. "They were relentless. Kate did a phenomenal job and Menon scored that last goal to finally give us some breathing room. It's a great way to finish off a wonderful season."
It was the biggest shot of Menon's water polo career and she was trying to set up a teammate, only taking the shot when it became necessary.
Menon's shot across the goal bounced off the far post and into the cage, sealing the victory.
"When I turned around the first person I saw was Kate and she was up to her waist out of the water she was so excited," Menon said. "I was looking for Kiley (Neushul) and maybe to work it to the other side. The first shot we got a tip out and to me that was just as important as the goal because we had the shot clock reset and had another possession. That second shot I just fired it as hard as I could."
The Cardinal (26-2) earned its third women's water polo national championship and the 103rd NCAA title overall for Stanford Athletics. The Cardinal also won in 2002.
The Cardinal defense, anchored by Baldoni, was remarkable the entire tournament while allowing nine total goals. Baldoni recorded a combined 29 saves in the three tournament games, 15 in the title match. She was named tournament MVP.
"It's been a great four years," Menon said. "I've known JT since I was nine years old. The only water polo I know is JT water polo. To finish off my years with a win here just means so much."
Stanford's two leading scorers this year were freshmen. Neushul scored once against USC to give her 57 for the season. Ashley Grossman finished with 50. And sophomore Kaley Dodson, who scored twice against USC, finished with 34.
"Hats off to our senior group," Tanner said. "The four of them have been amazing and have just taken this team over and turned it into a special environment with their vitality. Usually seniors are looking at grad school, they're thinking about the career, and the freshmen add the energy. Our freshmen have added a whole lot of energy, believe me, but the seniors are every bit as exuberant. It really is uncommon to have a group that is uniformly energized day in and day out."