Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - April 12, 2013

Battle of the Olympians

No. 1 USC, No. 2 Stanford match their medalists in crucial showdown

by Rick Eymer

Three American Olympians on the same team is a good thing, and yet it guarantees the Stanford women's water polo team absolutely nothing as the second-ranked Cardinal looks to Saturday's showdown with top-ranked and undefeated USC in Los Angeles.

Stanford (4-0 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, 23-1 overall) has an opportunity to avenge its only loss of the season and to better position itself for a top seed in postseason play when the teams meet at Uytengsu Aquatics Center at 4 p.m.

In the first meeting between the teams, the Trojans piled a 13-10 loss on the Cardinal more than a month ago in the UC Irvine Invitational.

"We owe it to ourselves," Cardinal senior Alexis Lee said. "We didn't play our best game then."

The Women of Troy (4-0, 20-0) have a pair of Olympians of their own and an Olympic (interim) coach in Jovan Vavic.

Stanford Olympians Melissa Seidemann, Annika Dries and Maggie Steffens faced USC's Olympians Anni Espar of Spain and Floria Bolonyai of Hungary during the American's run to the gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics.

Steffens was the leading scorer in the Summer Games with 21 goals, including seven in one match. Espar, who owns a silver medal, was the second-leading scorer. Bolonyai is considered one of the top goalies in the world.

Stanford coach John Tanner also has appeared in the Olympics, giving this weekend's contest the feel of an international tournament.

Australian Junior National Team members Jayde Appel and Hannah Buckley also play for USC. Buckley was Australia's Junior Water Polo Player of the Year for 2012.

Both teams have other highly regarded individuals playing for them. Stanford senior goalie Kate Baldoni has established herself as a dominant force in the net and sophomore Kiley Neushul was last year's national Player of the Year. Freshman Anna Yelizarova has played for Canada's senior national team.

"We always pride ourselves on defense," Baldoni said. "USC is always a big match. They are tough competition and we have to play defense."

USC's top player, arguably, is Monica Vavic, a powerful offensive weapon and the coach's daughter. She has a team-leading 59 goals for the year.

Both schools have high-powered offenses, with Stanford spreading the wealth a little more, and both have excellent defenses.

The 13 goals Stanford allowed in its loss to USC more than a month ago in the UC Irvine Invitational matches the most a Cardinal has ever allowed in a single game to a college team.

The only other time it happened was in a 13-12 overtime loss to California on March 19, 1997. The 2004 United States women's Olympic team beat Stanford, 14-7, in a 2004 exhibition.

"That's embarrassing," Tanner said of the 13 goals allowed. "They shot the ball well, they were thoroughly prepared and we were sloppy on defense."

Overall, Stanford outscores its opponents by a 14.4 to 4.92 margin while the Women of Troy own a 15.8 to 4.95 advantage.

"We're going to have to be surer, stronger and more determined with the ball to create high-percentage shots," Tanner said. "They have shooters and they can put a lot of pressure on us. It will be interesting to see them again. They have a different look this year."

Stanford drew a pretty good crowd in its 8-1 victory over UCLA last weekend, and USC traditionally draws well, particularly when it's a game of this magnitude.

Saturday's game means a lot to both teams, though it's more important for Stanford in the long run. A win by USC likely would mean a No. 1 seed not just in the MPSF tournament but also the NCAA tournament.

A Cardinal victory likely would mean the top seed for the MPSF championships (Stanford already has clinched no lower than a No. 2 seed) but would also help the Cardinal potentially earn a top seed for the NCAAs.

"They are a strong team and have proven themselves," Tanner said. "They are especially talented on offense. It is exciting to have a game like this as a bellweather of how we're doing. Win or lose, it will spur us to get back to work."

The victory over UCLA was Tanner's 400th as Stanford's women's coach. He owns a 400-59 overall record entering Saturday's action.

Woodside Priory grad Constance Hiller, who competed with the Stanford Water Polo Club team, is in her senior year at USC.

Stanford finishes the regular season with an MPSF game at California next Friday. The Bears also host the MPSF championships beginning April 26.

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