Sports

Stanford women's water polo all set to begin title defenses

 

As far as junior driver Jamie Neushul and coach John Tanner are concerned, the women's water polo season that begins Saturday morning against Pacific at San Jose State's Lou Strong Memorial Invitational is just another season.

So what if Stanford (25-2 last year), the two-time defending NCAA champion, will be without senior All-Americans Maggie Steffens and Gabby Stone, and so what if one of its top recruits deferred her enrollment for a year?

Steffens, Stone and future Cardinal Makenzie Fischer are all with the U.S. National Team as it prepares for the 2016 Rio Olympics and defending its Olympic gold medal.

"We haven't talked about losing people," said Neushul, an All-American honorable mention the past two years. "It's more about gaining people who will step into new roles. I think we'll be finding out about ourselves along the way."

Tanner, in his 18th season at the helm, has been through it before. He won a national championship in 2012 in virtually the same situation. At that time it was Steffens who deferred and All-Americans Annika Dries and Melissa Seidemann who took the year off.

"If you look through our games last year, you'll find that we used 12 to 14 players throughout the early part of the season," Tanner said. "It's not like we got to the fall of 2015 and looked at the roster. There's always a mix of the future and present. These guys have earned the opportunity and they come here knowing more and more will be expected of them each year."

The returning players have been through it at least once, and the freshmen were at Stanford when the Cardinal beat UCLA, 7-6, in last year's championship match.

"They've spent seven or eight years getting themselves in position to get here," Tanner said. "When Jamie was a freshman going through the NCAA experience, she was not overwhelmed by the big stage."

Stanford went 14-0 at home last year, extending its home winning streak to 29 games. The Cardinal has not lost an Mountain Pacific Sports Federation game since 2009, a stretch of 39 straight regular-season conference outings.

Stanford opens the year as the nation's top-ranked team and the choice to win the MPSF title.

Neushul and junior Dani Jackovich are the top returning scorers after tallying 28 goals last season. The two are among six players who scored at least 20 goals and are back this year. The list also includes senior co-captain Gurpreet Sohi, sophomore honorable mention All-American Jordan Raney, senior Anna Yelizarova and sophomore Katie Dudley.

"We're going to see different players step up on different days," Neushul said. "We'll go with the hot hand. That could be anybody."

Senior co-captain Rachel Johnson also reached double figures in scoring and five others return with at least one goal scored: sophomore Shannon Cleary, junior Sophia Monaghan, junior Cassidy Papa, sophomore Natalie Chun and sophomore Lauren Norheim.

Redshirt sophomore Julia Hermann, who has 12 career saves, will step in as the goalie in the absence of Stone and the graduation of M-A grad Emily Dorst.

"She hasn't played in a while but she is stepping up every day," Neushul said.

Stanford represented the United States in water polo at the World University Games in South Korea over the summer, giving the players time to get to know each other.

"It helped shift our mindset to focus on the new players," Neushul said. "We learned a lot about each other. We didn't do as well as we hoped but in the long run, it will help."

Neushul's older sister, Kiley, who graduated from Stanford (with Ashley Grossman and both are with the national team) after a superlative career that included a Player of the Year honor and All-American accolades, was a freshman in 2012, when the Cardinal won a national title with Dries, Seidemann and Steffens in attendance.

"She said it was one of the most fun teams she has played on," Neushul said. "I'm looking forward to this season. It's a different team and we all have a job. We'll figure out what it is and do it to the best of our ability."

While Fischer is a year away, a five-member freshmen class certainly enhances Stanford's chance to return to the NCAA title match.

Madison Berggren and Kat Klass were teammates with Raney and Fischer on the U.S. Youth National Team that earned a gold medal at the world championships in 2014. Berggren joined Fischer on the national team this past summer.

Sophia Stefan, Mackenzie Wiley and Cassidy Wiley have each been involved in the U.S. national program.

"Where will the answers come from?" Tanner said. "These guys have great water polo IQs with a wide breath of skill. There's a ton of options with these guys. It's fun. There's a buzz to the group, a flair about it."

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