Sports

Stanford women building toward their NCAA title defense

 

Senior Ashley Grossman brought a Lego sculpture, in the shape of an 'S' (tree included), to water polo practice earlier this week. She used precisely 318 Lego pieces to complete her artwork.

Each of the pieces represents a member of the second-ranked Cardinal women's water polo who made a contribution that doesn't show up on the official scoresheet.

Those are the type of contributions Stanford (22-2) will be hoping to get when it opens the National Collegiate Women's Water Polo Championship on Friday, May 8, at noon against either Princeton or Wagner at Avery Aquatic Center. The Cardinal is looking to defend its national title.

Through the season, Stanford keeps track of how many pieces are needed by post-it notes stuck to the coaches' office window.

"We used to call it 'Marble Monday' but we don't use marbles any more," Grossman said. "We like to recognize people who block a shot or picks up another teammate that would otherwise go unnoticed."

A player must be nominated by her teammate to qualify, so there's a sense of looking out for each other. Coaches can nominate players and players can nominate coaches.

"Or you can nominate yourself, like 'I made that block that wasn't on the scoresheet,'" Grossman said. "You want to take credit for it."

Grossman designed the sculpture and credits her roommate, senior field hockey player Shannon Herold, for the details.

"She's more mathematically inclined," said Grossman. "I told her I wanted 100 Legos here, 50 there."

M-A grad Emily Dorst has her name scribbled on several of those post-it notes.

"She's been committed all four years," Grossman said. "She's one of our emotional leaders and brings a lot of energy. She's goofy, she's fun and she has a different style of blocking shots and that makes it difficult to practice. You can't rely on a shot that might work against another goalie. You have to pick your shot. She makes us better shooters."

Stanford coach John Tanner, who also attended M-A, encourages activities like 'Marble Monday.'

"We always acknowledge people for their contributions," he said. "It's a big part of the team and the program. When they put their minds to something, it's an incredible the things they come up with."

Grossman and fellow seniors Kiley Neushul, a former National Player of the Year, and Dorst are looking for their third national title in four years and the Cardinal's fourth in five years.

The group has a bit of history to overcome. The host school has never won a national title in the 15 years it has been contested.

"That's one of the first things we talked about this year," Grossman said. "Being a senior, it's my last opportunity to be at Stanford, to be in the pool. Getting to play my last game in my home pool would make it that much sweeter. If we happen to win, it goes back to what this team has accomplished. Each championship means something different to each group of girls."

Tanner has been at the helm of all four Stanford national titles and understands the journey can diverge along different, unique paths.

"They change so much, even during the course of one school year," Tanner said. "You think about how much the freshmen have experienced and grown as water polo players. The impact they've made on the team has changed. It's constantly evolving. This group is on a totally different course than any other team."

Until Stanford knows its opponent -- Princeton, the prohibitive favorite, hosts Wagner on Saturday -- the team is content working on itself.

"It's better to work on ourselves right now," Grossman said. "Sometimes we can be our own worst enemies. J.T. prepares us well to play other teams. Different situations happen. Working on ourselves is super important."

Grossman said finishing third in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament after an undefeated regular season taught Stanford a couple of things heading into the national tournament.

California knocked off the Cardinal in the semifinal. Stanford came back the next day to beat USC for third place.

"First, we need to ramp it up this week," she said. "Playing at Cal gave us energy, but at a neutral site, they played so well. They played to win. I felt like we played a little bit just to play.

"Second, When we energized as a team in the water, we're that much stronger," she added. "We can't forget about that. We lost it a little bit last Saturday but got it back Sunday."

Stanford can only play the Golden Bears in the championship match. Cal and UCLA are favored to meet each other in the semifinal.

"Cal made us remember the pain," Grossman said. "That gives us a boost. We need to fine-tune things. We're right there, we're comfortable where we are and we need to feed off each other."

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