Seniors Kiley Neushul, Ashley Grossman and M-A grad Emily Dorst already have a pair of national titles to their credit and their Stanford women's water polo team has won three of the past four NCAA championship trophies.
It's a different team this time around but the Cardinal (25-1 last year and unbeaten in Mountain Pacific Sports Federation play) maintain the same high standards and expect to be playing when the NCAA tournament comes around in May.
Stanford's Avery Aquatic Center will be the setting for this year's national championships May 8-10) and there's not much more motivation than wanting to play in front of a packed house in your home pool.
Stanford has previously hosted the national tourney in 2004 and '08, but watched USC and then UCLA win the titles. The goal is to end that streak this season.
The first step began two weekends ago at the LouStrong Memorial at San Jose State. The Cardinal won a pair of exhibition matches against China (10-6) and Brazil (13-6). The Cardinal (2-0) also dunked Pacific (14-3) and Cal State Monterey Bay (20-0).
Stanford opens its home season this weekend at the Stanford Invitational. The Cardinal will face UC Davis (9:10 a.m.) and UC Irvine (3:45 p.m.) on Saturday before taking on San Jose State (8:08 a.m.) on Sunday. The championship match will be later in the day.
Stanford enters this weekend with a 497-81 overall record since the program's inception in 1996 and should hit the 500-win plateau on Sunday.
"All of them have signed on to blast off," Stanford coach John Tanner said. "We're going to get after it from the get-go. These guys aspire to be great every day."
Neushul and Grossman were freshmen when junior Maggie Steffens was helping the United States win a gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics. Stanford was missing its top three players that year.
No Olympians? No problem. Neushul led the team in scoring and was won the Peter J. Cutino Award as the nation's top player after helping Stanford win the national title. Grossman was second on the team in scoring.
Steffens was actually part of the same recruiting class with Neushul and Grossman, but deferred a year to play in the Olympics with her older sister, Stanford grad Jessica Steffens.
"All these guys grew up in water polo households," Tanner said. "They have a sense of how the game is played across the board. The environment they grew up in emphasized movement and fast-paced water polo. That fits in with what we're trying to achieve."
For Neushul, Grossman and Steffens (a two-time FINA Player of the Year), last weekend seemed very familiar. The Team USA teammates helped the Americans win gold medals at the FINA World Cup in Russia and at the FINA World League Super Final in China over the summer.
"There are a lot of players on the team, who, in their own right, are sensational," Tanner said of his players. "But, water polo for them has always been about team."
Grossman is rounding into shape after a shoulder problem two years ago slowed her down.
"She's getting stronger and she's a hard worker," Tanner said. "She's exuberant and fun to be around. She brings a lot of energy. She's found another level and is having a good season so far."
Steffens' water polo bloodlines extend beyond the borders. Her father, Carlos, helped Cal win a national championship and later helped Puerto Rico win a Pan Am gold medal. Her uncle, Peter Schnugg, played at Cal and was an U.S. Olympian in 1980. Her older brother also played for Cal.
Steffens opened her season with four goals last weekend.
"She just has a great feel for the sport," said Tanner. "She just feels comfortable and is calibrated enough that she builds bridges with players of all ages."
Neushul enters her senior season with 159 career goals. She tallied five last weekend and now has 164.
"They are all different in how they play and it's fun to see how they perform as leaders."
Stanford lost five seniors from last year's title team, including Olympian and Cutino Award winner Annika Dries, but returns six of its top 10 scorers. Neushul and Steffens tied for the team lead, each with 51. Grossman added 45.
Junior Anna Yelizarova (38), sophomore Jamie Neushul (17),and sophomore Dani Jackovich (17) are also back. Yelizarova tallied five goals at San Jose State.
Junior goalie Gabby Stone appeared in all but two of Stanford's games, ending the year with a 7.64 saves average and a 5.91 goals against average. Dorst, who played in 13 games, had a 7.79 saves average and a 6.04 goals against average. Sophomore Julia Hermann played in eight games.
Juniors Rachel Johnson and Gupreet Sohi, who combined to score 11 goals last year, add experience, while sophomores Cassidy Papa, Sophia Monaghan and Jessica Webster, who combined for nine goals, add depth.
Jordan Raney leads a strong class of freshmen, which also includes Katie Dudley, Shannon Cleary, Natalie Chen and Lauren Norheim.
Raney, who has a brown belt in karate, has been a part of the United States national team program since 2011 and helped the national youth team win gold at the Junior Pan Ams and FINA World Championships this past summer.
Her mother, Tina, was an All-American swimmer at UCLA and her father, Kris, played water polo at Pomona.
Dudley has played with the U.S. women's youth team while earning Michigan Player of the Year honors in 2012 and 2014. Her older sister, Lauren, played water polo at Michigan. Her father, Thomas, and grandfather, Tom, swam for Michigan.
Chun was a member of the U.S. women's cadet national team in 2012. She was a junior Olympic All-American that year.
Cleary also has water polo as part of her family history. Her older brother, Connor, just completed his final year at Stanford and is a member of the U.S. national team. Her father, Shaun, won a pair of NCAA water polo titles while at Cal and played for the national team.
Her mother, Betsy, was a member of a national title team with the Florida women's swimming program and was ranked as high as second in the world in the 100 fly.
"We can't play for a championship until May," Tanner said. "What we can do is practice, compete and support each other at the highest level."
2015 STANFORD WOMEN'S WATER POLO SCHEDULE
==B Date Opponent Time
January 17 d. Pacific, 14-3
January 17 d. Monterey Bay, 20-0
Saturday vs. UC Davis 9:10 a.m.
Saturday vs. UC Irvine 3:45 p.m.
Sunday vs. San Jose St. 8 a.m.
Sunday tourney finals 3:30 p.m.
Feb. 14 at Fresno Pacific 1 p.m.
Feb. 14 vs. SD State at Fresno 3:30 p. m.
Feb. 21 at UCI Invite
Feb. 22 at UCI Invite
Feb. 26 vs. Santa Clara 3:30 p.m.
Feb. 26 vs. Sonoma St. 5:15 p.m.
March 8 at LMU noon
March 8 at USC 6 p.m.
March 20 vs. Harvard 7 p.m.
March 28 at Arizona St. TBA
March 29 vs. UC Davis 1 p.m.
April 4 vs. San Jose St. 1 p.m.
April11 vs. UCLA 1 p.m.
April 12 vs. CSU Bakersfield noon
April 16 at California 5 p.m.
April 24-26 MPSF tourney at ASU
May 8-10 NCAAs at Stanford