Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - March 30, 2012

Stanford has new challenges

Defending NCAA title is just one of many goals for No. 2 women

by Keith Peters

This has been a season of challenges for the Stanford women's water polo team, which is coming off an NCAA championship last spring but lost two key players and an incoming freshman to the U.S. Senior National Team.

Thus, the Cardinal of 2012 has been on track to defend its national title, perhaps duplicate last year's 28-1 record and keep the program afloat at the elite level until likely Olympians Annika Dries, Melissa Seidemann and Maggie Steffens return.

Stanford coach John Tanner also had to find a way to incorporate five new freshmen into a program with just four seniors.

"It's obviously a challenge when you lose two great players (Seidemann and Dries) off last year's team," said freshman Kiley Neushul. "But, we got solid players from the freshman class. The spotlight definitely was on Mel and Annika last year, so it's a challenge and we're ready to accept it."

Stanford has done just fine in the challenge department, having compiled a 16-1 record and No. 2 national ranking heading into this weekend's home matches against Arizona State (Saturday) and San Diego State (Sunday), both at 1 p.m.

Despite her freshman status, Neushul has been a big reason why it has been business as usual for the Cardinal. She has scored a team-leading 38 goals (freshman Ashley Grossman is second with 29) and helped followers forget that anyone is missing from last year's squad.

Neushul, who has been a member of the USA Senior National Team since her junior year at Dos Pueblos High in Goleta where she led her team to four straight CIF Southern Division titles and 67 straight wins, has been more than up to the challenge.

Last weekend, for example, she faced a challenge of the most unique kind when Stanford traveled to Santa Barbara to face UCSB and Brown.

UC Santa Barbara's first-year coach is Cathy Neushul, Kiley's mother.

"It was a weird experience," said Kiley. "I've never played against my mom, only for her."

Kiley didn't have time to chat with her mom before the match because Stanford had made a three-hour drive from Kettleman City on Sunday morning and arrived just before game time. The Cardinal had been in Fresno on Saturday, watching the Stanford women's basketball team play South Carolina in the Fresno Regional semifinal of the NCAA Tournament.

When Stanford arrived at the UCSB pool, the course hadn't been set up quite yet.

"I was warming up and my mom yelled, 'Kiley, set up the cage!'

"I said, 'mom, I'm not playing for you any more.' "

Once the match got under way, mother and daughter clashed again.

"The first shot of the game was a 5-meter penalty shot, and I took it," Kiley said. "My mom knew I had done poorly in the past with those shots and said something to their goalie from the deck. That just fired me up. I just threw it as hard as I could."

That was the first of Kiley's four goals in the match.

"I respect her as a coach, but I wanted to win," Kiley said.

After Stanford had posted a 12-2 victory, the teams lined up to congratulate each other. There was no special treatment from mom.

"My mom just shook my hand and said good game," Kiley said.

There was time for a family reunion on Sunday and Monday (Stanford beat Brown on Monday morning, 19-3) as the Neushul family hosted Stanford both nights. The Cardinal players watched the women's basketball team beat Duke on Monday night before heading back to the Bay Area on Tuesday.

Despite growing up in Santa Barbara and having an opportunity to play for her mother, it never was an option for Neushul. She has wanted to play for Stanford since she was in the seventh grade.

Cathy Neushul never pressured Kiley on her college choice but her father, Peter, a former UCSB player in his day, offered an ultimatum

"I was initially deciding between UCSB and Stanford," Kiley said. "Then my dad said I would have to live in my room at home if I went to UCSB, so I said no way. I felt pretty much all along that if I got into Stanford, I was coming here. Other schools had a lot to offer, but I feel like I've been on this team since I started playing water polo."

Tanner, of course, couldn't be happier. Neushul is just one of many key components on a Stanford team that has a lot going for it.

"We expected a lot," said Tanner. "We had more quality players returning than most people realized. It was easy to focus on what we weren't going to have. (But) The people returning maybe didn't have the recognition or respect that they perhaps should have."

While not having Dries, the reigning national player of the year, Seidemann or Steffens might have appeared to leave Stanford out of the title picture, it has anything but that.

"No one on our team walked in thinking 'what can we throw together?'" Tanner said. "We expect our team to be competitive every year."

Without Dries and Seidemann dominating the two-meter position this Stanford team has a different look.

"Our strengths are different then they have been the past couple of years," Tanner said. "We used to be a power team, like the Stanford football team. Now, we're more like a spread offense in football. Our team's identity has been about energy and passion."

Tanner said his four seniors — Pallavi Menon from Sacred Heart Prep, Alysa Lo, Cassie Churnside and Monica Coughlan — provide a versatility perhaps not seen before.

"All four are getting an opportunity," Tanner said. "They were just in the shadows for three years."

Junior goalie Kate Baldoni has taken over for the graduated Amber Oland and has an able backup in freshman Emily Dorst from Menlo-Atherton High. Dorst is one of 10 underclassmen and among the standout five-player freshman class led by Neushul.

"We're just glad Kiley played for us and didn't stay home in Santa Barbara," said Tanner, who was also happy to see Neushul's decision not to pursue a berth on the 2012 Olympic team.

Tanner said it was the quality of the Stanford experience, being with her teammates and on campus — much like Andrew Luck's decision to remain an extra year at Stanford.

"She chose to be here," Tanner said.

"I used to really want to go to the Olympics," Neushul said. "That was my goal. I still do. I don't want to really take things too fast. Playing at Stanford is so much fun."

And challenging.

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