Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - January 25, 2013

Stanford's goal has familiar ring to it

Two-time defending national champion Cardinal women going for a three-peat in water polo

by Rick Eymer

USA Olympic gold medalists Annika Dries and Melissa Seidemann weren't completely absent through the Stanford women's water polo team's run to the national title last year. They would send the occasional text or show up at a match while preparing for the 2012 London Games.

Now they're all in, along with FINA's Women's Player of the Year and Olympian Maggie Steffens, as the top-ranked Cardinal looks for a three-peat this season.

Stanford (26-2 last year) opens its season Friday with a nonconference match against visiting Michigan at 2 p.m. The Cardinal heads to the UC Santa Barbara tournament for four more matches Saturday and Sunday.

"It's so fun to have them back," said Stanford senior goalie Kate Baldoni, who stopped over 90 percent of the shots (29 of 32) she faced in the national championships. "We saw them in the stands last year and it's like they were always part of the team."

Baldoni, an All-American and the MVP of the National Collegiate Championships last year, is just one of several players with distinguished awards to display.

In addition to the three Olympic gold medalists, Cardinal coach John Tanner, last season's national Coach of the Year, can also look for help from sophomore Kiley Neushul, the reigning college Player of the Year (Dries won the award two years ago), returning All-Americans Kaley Dodson and Ashley Grossman and two members of the Canadian National Team in freshmen Anna Yelizarova and Gurpreet Sohi.

Neushul led the team in scoring last year with 58, followed by Grossman with 50. Dodson was fourth with 34 goals.

Steffens led all Olympians with 21 goals, making over 70 percent of her shots. Adding to the wealth of talent will be Kaitlyn Lo, who scored 29 goals for the Cardinal last year, Jillian Garton (18), Alexis Lee (14) and four others, Cory Dodson, Kelsey Suggs, Catherine Carpenter, Lexie Ross, who combined for another 21 goals.

Victoria Kennedy, who netted 13 goals last year, is using her redshirt season.

"We need to be our own best competition," Seidemann said. "In practice we get beat up by them and we have to make a stellar play to score because they are playing stellar defense. There are still a lot of challenges."

Did we mention that Dries scored 65 goals and Seidemann added 51 two years ago?

"We have a lot of people who can score," Tanner said. "It's a matter of seeing what they are doing against us and seeing where the openings are."

The Cardinal also has a local presence again with sophomore goalie Emily Dorst, a Menlo-Atherton High grad, and freshman driver Skylar Dorosin out of Palo Alto.

Gabby Stone, Melena Masson and Rachel Johnson complete a solid freshmen class that will be contributing to a team that outscored its opponents, 342-130, last year.

The offensive firepower that Stanford possesses will be a nightmare to defend. Steffens will certainly draw a lot of attention but that may open the way for Neushul, Grossman, Seidemann, Dries and others.

"On a daily basis these guys stay hungry," Tanner said. "They are eager to prove themselves. They have launched themselves from the podium to what's next."

With at least four players capable of scoring 50 goals, and adding Steffens to the mix, sharing the scoring load could become complicated.

"I don't think we're going to be over confident," Neushul said. "There are a lot of egos but that's just a challenge coming in. It's about suppressing the ego and getting everybody to work together. These guys make the team environment fun. The team doesn't feel any different than it did last year."

Neushul, who has previously trained with Steffens, Dries and Seidemann, said that by staying in contact last year, was special.

"Because we were always going to be teammates, I felt like it helped prepare us for this year," she said.

Steffens, whose older sister Jessica was also on the U.S. Olympic team and also played at Stanford, still feels like a rookie despite her international experience and renown.

"We're trying to be a family," she said. "I'm new coming in and there are so many things I needed to learn. Yes, I had my sister but I also have older sisters on this team and I've learned through them. It's a hard transition to come from an arena where all you do is practice and play, almost like a pro, and now to be a student-athlete. I have people here I look up to and who can guide me through the year."

Dries said she's enjoying the fact she's reunited with some of her former Laguna Beach high school teammates Masson and Ross.

"It's like coming back in with a fresh start with a new team," Dries said. "It's about playing as a group and working hard to play at a certain level. It's also about coming together as a team."

While Stanford will be the odds-on favorite to win its third straight title, Tanner warns it won't be as easy as people think.

"A lot of teams have gotten better," he said. "I went to London to watch the five Stanford players (Brenda Villa was also there as team captain) and I saw a lot of coaches throwing a fishing pole into the pool and getting after it. The level of play will be exquisite."

USC, which met the Cardinal in last year's championship match, counts junior Flora Bolonyai among its players. She was the starting goalie for Hungary at the Olympics. Australian National Team member Hannah Buckling transferred in from Sydney University.

Sophomore Monica Vavic, the daughter of coach Jovan Vavic, is also one of the top players in the country. Priory grad Constance Hiller, who played for the Stanford club team, returns for her senior year.

Arizona State features six foreign players with international experience, include senior national team members Alicia Brightwell (Australia) and Ao Gao (China).

"There are so many more good players now," Tanner said. "Each team has 10 to 14 solid players and three or four that require special attention. You have to game plan for every opponent now. Five or 10 years ago, that wasn't the case."

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