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Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - May 9, 2014

Stanford seniors take another title shot

Veteran water polo class is hoping to reach a fourth straight NCAA title game this weekend

by Rick Eymer

Stanford senior Kaley Dodson feels right at home at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center in Los Angeles, the site of this weekend's NCAA women's water polo national championships.

Dodson, one of nine Cardinal players with at least 10 goals, grew up about a half-hour drive from USC.

Seniors Annika Dries and Lexie Ross played their high school ball at Laguna Beach, an hour from the Trojans' water polo facility.

"I was actually a little nervous that we had to play both the MPSF and NCAA tournaments at USC," Dodson said. "But after having success there, we're feeling confident. And it is L.A., where I always feel comfortable."

Stanford (22-1) enters the national championships as the top seed, a ranking it earned by beating defending NCAA champion USC and No. 2 UCLA during the regular season and then beating the Bruins again in the final of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament.

Should the Cardinal reach the title game, it's highly probable one of those two schools will be the opponent.

Stanford, which meets No. 8 Indiana in the opening round on Friday at 3:30 p.m., lost to the Trojans in quadruple overtime last year. The Cardinal has not forgotten.

"We're excited about the weekend," Dodson said. "We hope to go out a winner. We also understand anything can happen. We're on top right now but we're not feeling too much pressure. It's almost like we're the underdogs. We have been looking forward to this for a long time and we're ready."

Indiana (23-5) advanced into the tournament by defeating No. 9 Wagner, 11-6, in an NCAA play-in game last weekend. The Hoosiers won the CWPA tournament to earn a spot in the tournament draw. Canadian Shae Fornier, who has scored 73 goals, leads them offensively.

Other first-round matchups include No. 3 USC (24-3) against No. 6 UC Irvine (24-7), No. 2 UCLA (25-4) versus No. 7 UC San Diego (27-10) and No. 4 California (19-8) against No. 5 Arizona State (15-10).

Castilleja grad Sallie Walecka and Sacred Heart Prep grad Sarah Westcott both play for Pomona-Pitzer.

The Stanford-Indiana winner meets the California-Arizona State winner in Saturday's semifinal round.

Sunday's championship match is set for 5:30 p.m. All matches will be streamed live through ncaa.com.

Dodson (her younger sister Cory is also a member of the Cardinal) feels the five seniors, a group that also includes Kaitlyn Lo and Kelsey Suggs, have played a part in creating a positive atmosphere.

"We've come a long way and we're hopeful the experience will carry over," she said. "The important thing was to build chemistry. When I was a freshman, the seniors were amazing and made me feel right at home. I have to admit that first year was overwhelming. My goal this year was to pay it forward and make these freshman welcome."

Two of the freshmen, Jamie Neushul and Dani Jackovich, are members of the 10-plus goals club. Neushul's older sister Kiley, who also plays at Stanford, was named winner of the Peter J. Cutino Award in 2012. That serves as the national player of the year honor.

This year, Dries and sophomore Maggie Steffens are two of the finalists for the Cutino Award, along with UCLA goalie Sami Hill. Dries won the award in 2011, before taking a year off to join the United States Olympic team, with Steffens.

Kiley Neushul leads the Cardinal with 46 goals, followed by Steffens with 44, sophomore Ashley Grossman (41), sophomore Anna Yelizarova (35), Jamie Neushul, Dodson, Jackovich (16) and Cory Dodson (10).

Sophomore goalie Gabby Stone leads a strong defensive effort that has allowed less than six goals a game. Menlo-Atherton grad Emily Dorst has appeared in 12 contests. Dorst's older sister and fellow M-A grad Becca plays for UCLA.

Kiley Neushul and Indiana's Amanda Redfern were teammates for three years at Dos Pueblos High, helping the school win section titles each year.

Dodson, who has scored 121 career goals, could graduate from Stanford as part of the program's most heralded senior class.

They have reached the past three national title games. Last year's senior class became the first to reach four championship games, winning twice (2011 and '12) and finishing with an overall record of 109-9.

This time around, the seniors carry a 107-7 overall mark into the final weekend and a chance to make history.

"It would be fun to celebrate," Dodson said. "I've had my ups and downs along the way. There were times I did not think I would make it through four years. It's been a long journey."

Dodson said head coach John Tanner has been an important part of her journey.

"He's been a very different coach than I've ever had and I appreciate that," she said. "He has been patient with me, shared my confidence and has been supportive through all of this. He's a big part of me getting through four seasons."

Stanford makes its 14th straight appearance at the NCAAs, the only school to qualify for every NCAA women's water polo tournament since the inaugural event in 2001. Stanford has reached nine national title games and has never finished lower than third at the event, compiling a record of 25-10.

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