Stanford-USC rivalry is a special one in women's water polo


Gurpreet Sohi quickly caught on to the sports rivalry among Stanford, USC, UCLA and California. After all, a football game is one of the first events a freshman attends.

Sohi first had to become a football fan. A native of British Columbia, Canada, football was not at the top of her priority list. Sohi plunged into water polo (and dabbled in soccer) and was part of the Canadian national team system before arriving at Stanford.

"I've become a Stanford athletics fan," Sohi said. "Every sport has its rivalries. Playing against great teams and big schools, those are the fun games."

The third-ranked Cardinal (19-2, 4-0 in the Mountain Sports Pacific Federation) has one of those fun games Saturday, when it hosts top-ranked and undefeated USC (19-0, 4-0) at 1 p.m. at Avery Aquatic Center.

There's a lot at stake, especially for two-time defending national champion Stanford, on an eight-game winning streak since losing to the Trojans in the semifinals of the UC Irvine Invitational at the end of February.

"We're fighting for the No. 1 seed at the tournament and we can do that if we win the MPSF," Sohi correctly points out. "In the bigger picture, we're focused on our game and what we need to do."

Stanford, which can finish no worse than third in the conference, brings a 43-game MPSF regular-season winning streak into the contest. Stanford and USC have won the past six NCAA titles. The Trojans beat the Cardinal in 2010 and 2013 for the championship.

"It starts in September, on Day 1," Sohi said. "You prepare for the moment you play these teams. They are always competitive and always fast."

Sohi grew up in Delta, B.C., a town about 15 minutes north of the United States border, just above Washington. She spent plenty of time in California playing in water polo tournaments and attended the Stanford camp during her high school days, likely where she first attracted the attention of the Cardinal coaching staff.

She helped Canada to the silver medal at the Junior Pan Am Games in 2012 and was the leading scorer in the 2010 U16 and 2011 U18 Canadian Club national championships.

After scoring a combined 49 goals in her first three years at Stanford, Sohi ranks third with 31 goals this year. She's recorded three hat tricks, including in Stanford's 14-5 victory over San Diego State on Sunday.

Junior Jamie Neushul leads Stanford with 39 goals, followed by freshman Kat Klass with 36.

"I didn't realize I've been scoring more," said Sohi, who has scored in a team-high 18 matches. "We play with each other every day and we know where people are good at certain spots and how they like to receive a pass. If someone is in a strong spot we'll feed her the ball."

It's a system that does not rely on any one person but utilizes a varied attack. Seven different players have at least 20 goals and three others are also in double digits.

"We trust each other to know when to drive and we're able to cover for each other," Sohi said. "We spend the preseason getting to know each other's moves and then spend the rest of the season fine-tuning those connections."

Sohi, a human biology major with a concentration in global health and human rights, likely will be making the right connections long after she's done playing water polo.

In high school she was part of a human rights group that took a trip to Cambodia and studied the history of the country, a history that includes genocide.

"It was a random path," Sohi said. "I wanted an opportunity to travel before college and one of the teachers was running a trip to Rwanda to study turtles. Somehow the trip got shortened and shifted to Cambodia."

She stayed in a home for five days with no running water and no electricity. The shower was nothing more than a bucket.

"It was a completely different life from mine," Sohi said. "Their values were so different. Little kids loved helping us move dirt around. They didn't have much and they were still happy and supportive, proud to be Cambodians. They had a wealth of happiness."

Visiting the 'Killing Fields,' where upwards of two million people perished, made the genocide (1975-79) real for Sohi.

"You see the skulls and the clothing of young children and it's undeniable," she said. "We were shocked how anyone could let this happen. We studied the genocide and talked to the lead prosecutor and defense about the importance of the trials (which began in 2009). We talked to people who shared their experiences. Some of the stories are unfathomable."

Saturday's contest against the Trojans will serve as Stanford's Senior Day, in which the Cardinal's three-person senior class of Rachel Johnson, Anna Yelizarova and Sohi will be honored in a pregame ceremony. In their four years on The Farm, the trio has led Stanford to a 98-8 record and a pair of national championships.

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