Stanford went unbeaten in Mountain Pacific Sports Federation women's water polo play during regular season. The Cardinal was reminded, in the league tournament, of just how tough it is to remain unbeaten through the conference tournament.
Stanford (22-2) hopes the lesson will serve it well now that the NCAA tournament is at hand.
The defending national champion Cardinal meets Princeton (30-3) at noon Friday in its home pool at Avery Aquatic Center in the quarterfinals of the National Collegiate Women's Water Polo Championship.
Stanford is seeking its third title of the past four years and must make history to do so. No hosting school has ever won the national championship in its own pool. The Cardinal, which has appeared in all 15 NCAA tournaments, including this year, has yet to reach the championship match the past two tournaments held at Stanford in 2008 and '04.
"These guys like the stakes, they like being one of a kind and making history," Stanford coach John Tanner said of his team. "They love to compete. They love the challenge."
The Cardinal has reached the title match in each of the previous five years, twice losing in overtime to USC by the same 10-9 score.
The only three schools to win NCAA titles are Stanford, UCLA and USC and all three are represented again this year. The MPSF tournament champions Bruins (24-2) are the No. 1 seed, followed by Stanford and the third-seeded Trojans (22-5).
UCLA owns half the previous 14 titles, including five in a row between 2005-09. The Cardinal has appeared in more title contests, winning four of the 10 in which it has appeared. All six runner-up finishes were decided by a single goal.
"In the MPSF, we have to be sharp every game, every quarter, every possession," Tanner said. "There are a lot of great teams and the top four have shown the capacity to knock off each other."
The Bruins handed Stanford its first defeat of the year and the Cardinal came back to beat UCLA in MPSF play. Stanford then lost to California in the semifinals of the conference tournament. The Bears are seeded fourth in the NCAA tournament.
"Cal beat us because they were better," Tanner said. "It's no shock. A lot of people felt they were the top contender at the beginning of the year. They have three sophomores who are among the best players in Europe, who play both ends of the play well. They are amazing weapons."
Drivers Anna Illes and Dora Antal are from water polo-crazed Hungary, while driver Roser Tarrago is from Spain, the country that Team USA had to beat to win the 2012 Olympic gold medal in London.
The trio has scored 151 of the Bears' 296 goals. Antal is the team leader with 60, followed by Tarrago with 51 and Illes with 40. No one else has more than 28.
In contrast, Stanford's top three scorers are Kiley Neushul (54), Ashley Grossman (50) and Maggie Steffens (46), all members of the USA senior national team. Jamie Neushul is next with 28.
Even with the MPSF-dominated postseason, Stanford is not overlooking Princeton, which
beat Wagner, 12-2, in the NCAA Play-In game on Tuesday.
"Princeton has a lot of highly regarded players and an incredible goalie," Tanner said. "They are able to hang in there and keep grinding. They try to keep the tempo slow and look for chances to counter."
Junior Pippa Temple is among the Tigers' top players. The Sacred Heart Prep grad has scored 35 goals, including eight in the past six games. She also has 26 assists.
Several tournament teams have their own former Gators on the roster. Kelly Moran is a backup goalie at UCLA, Caitlin Stuewe is at USC and Bridgette Harper is on the UC San Diego roster.
Stanford senior goalie Emily Dorst hails from Menlo-Atherton.
In an attempt to neutralize home pool advantage, the Cardinal is treated like another visiting team, staying in a local hotel and using a different locker room.
"It's a different experience," Grossman said. "Most important is the pool itself. That's something we're all looking forward to."
With Grossman, Steffens, Kiley Neushul and Cardinal junior goalie Gabby Stone were preparing for the NCAA tournament, their U.S. teammates were busy winning a gold medal at the FINA Intercontinental tournament in New Zealand.
The Americans, led by former UCLA coach Adam Krikorian, used a pair of future Stanford players and Cardinal grads in Auckland.
The Bruins have three current Team USA members currently on their team. In fact, three of the world's top goalkeepers will be on hand at Stanford this weekend. In addition to Stone, there's UCLA Sami Hill and Princeton's Ashleigh Johnson. The Americans used veteran Betsy Armstrong in winning the FINA event.
Also on Friday, USC and Hawaii (18-8) met at 1:45 p.m., UCLA (24-2) and UC San Diego (19-18) play at 3:30 p.m. and the Bears (19-7) meet UC Irvine (19-8) at 5:15 p.m.
The tournament continues Saturday and Sunday, with matches beginning at noon. Sunday's championship match is slated to begin at 5:30 p.m.
Stanford finished second in the MPSF in goals per game (13.67), behind USC (16.33) and leads the league in goals allowed per game (4.79).
The Cardinal's offense has come from all over, as nine players have scored 20 or more this season, the most since 2007.
2015 NCAA WOMEN'S WATER POLO SCHEDULE
At Stanford's Avery Stadium
Game 1 -- Stanford (22-2) vs. Princeton (30-3), noon
Game 2 -- USC (22-5) vs. Hawaii (18-8), 1:45 p.m.
Game 3 -- UCLA (24-2) vs. UC San Diego (19-18), 3:30 p.m.
Game 4 -- UC Irvine (19-8) vs. Cal (19-7), 5:15 p.m.
Game 5 -- Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, noon
Game 6 -- Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 1:45 p.m.
Game 7 -- Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 3:30 p.m.
Game 8 -- Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 5:15 p.m.
Game 9 -- Seventh place (Game 5 loser vs. Game 6 loser), noon
Game 10 -- Fifth place (Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner), 1:45 p.m.
Game 11 -- Third place (Game 7 loser vs. Game 8 loser), 3:30 p.m.
Game 12 -- First place (Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner), 5:15 p.m.