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Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - May 10, 2013

Stanford goes for a 3-peat

Cardinal could battle USC once again in NCAA title match

by Rick Eymer

In the brief 13-year history of the NCAA Women's Water Polo Championship, three schools, and more specifically, three coaches, have proven dominant at the elite level.

Stanford, coached by Menlo-Atherton High grad John Tanner, has qualified for every tournament so far, and has reached eight of the previous 12 championship matches, winning three times.

USC, coached by Johan Vavic, has been to six championship matches, winning twice, while UCLA's Adam Krikorian has won seven of his eight trips to the title game.

Only California and Loyola Marymount have spoiled the party, each owning a national runner-up trophy.

Those three coaches also have something else in common in that they have been involved with the United States (men's and women's) National Team program, with Krikorian leading the American women to their first gold medal in the sport in London last summer.

USC, Stanford and UCLA (now coached by Brandon Brooks), are the top three seeds in this year's championship tournament, to be held at Harvard University, near Boston, beginning Friday morning.

Should the Cardinal and Women of Troy reach the title match on Sunday, which is expected, the pool will be filled with Olympians, and not just from the U.S.

"There would be a significant group of the top players in the world, club or otherwise," Tanner said. "The level of play is at an all-time high. Some of the starters for USC played major roles for their countries."

The Cardinal (27-2) features Olympians Maggie Steffens, Melissa Seidemann and Annika Dries. Canadian National Team member Anna Yelizarova is one of Stanford's top scorers.

Reigning National Player of the Year Kiley Neushul and Stanford goalie Kate Baldoni are also among the elite players.

USC features sophomore Monica Vavic, certainly capable of playing at the Olympic level, Hungarian Olympic goalie Flora Bolonyai and Spanish Olympian Anni Espar.

Bolonyai could be looking for a bit of redemption. Steffens scored seven goals against her in the Olympics, while Espar, who owns a silver medal, also could be looking to avenge Spain's loss to the U.S. in the gold-medal game.

"They play the game right," Tanner said of USC's Trojans. "They try to score in every phase, they are well-prepared and it's a pleasure to play them. I hope to get to the championship game."

For as intense as the rivalry has become, the Bruins could very well sneak into the title match. UCLA (26-6) lost a one-goal game to USC earlier in the season and five of its losses have been to Stanford and the Women of Troy. The Bruins also lost a one-goal game to up-and-coming Arizona State.

"UCLA is a good team," Tanner said. "They took USC to a last-second goal. They are defensive-minded and are finding more ways to score. We have to focus on Saturday."

USC is the top offensive team in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation. Stanford ranks second. The Cardinal is the MPSF's top defensive team. USC ranks second. Baldoni is the top-ranked goalie in the conference, even ahead of Bolonyai.

"Our games with USC have traditionally very strategic and intense," Tanner said.

Stanford opens the tournament Friday morning against Iona (21-8). UCLA and Princeton play in the second game of the day, followed by USC and Pomona-Pitzer. Hawaii and UC San Diego, coached by Brad Kreutzkamp, whose brother Brian coaches for Sacred Heart Prep, meet in the final game.

Stanford and UCLA are expected to meet in one semifinal Saturday at 4 p.m. The championship match is slated for Sunday at 2:15 p.m.

The trip to Boston already has been memorable for Stanford, which toured Fenway Park on Wednesday and lunched at Copley Square on Thursday.

The Cardinal received an added bonus when the team was allowed on the field just as the Minnesota Twins were beginning batting practice. They got a tour inside the Green Monster's scoreboard.

"It was incredible," Tanner said. "We realized we were on hallowed ground."

The team even managed a picture against the Green Monster, even as balls were bouncing off the walls.

The trip to Copley Square, site of the Boston Marathon bombings, carried mixed emotions.

"It was something I thought we needed to look at," Tanner said. "We wanted to support those merchants, show our respect and pay homage. It was even odd to be at the pool."

Blodgett Pool was in lockdown after the bombings when it was learned one of the suspects had worked there as a life guard. The site since been been secured.

Of course, there is more to Boston and Harvard than just recent events and Stanford will be looking to create a little history itself as it attempts to win a third consecutive title.

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