Water polo balls are harder than one would think. Pick it up, toss it from hand to hand, and one discovers that there isn't much give to the ball. Now, imagine facing talented players flinging that hard, unforgiving ball towards your goal at high speeds, and being the last line of defense.

"It depends on where it hits you. If it hits you in the face, it hurts pretty bad," notes Amber Oland, Stanford's senior goalie. "You get used to it over the years."

"If it hits you square in the face, and you block the ball, when you hear your whole team cheering you on you think `That stinks, but I blocked the ball.'" says fellow senior and goalie Kim Hall.

"You look at it like, `As long as I blocked the ball,' so it doesn't really matter where it hits you, even point-blank in the face, just as long as you blocked the ball," adds sophomore Kate Baldoni. "Because if it hits you in the head and goes in, that hurts more, real bad."

Oland, Baldoni and Hall make up Stanford women's water polo's trio of goalies, one that can be considered the best in the country. The group's courage and willingness to take the bumps and bruises that come with their position have resulted in the top-ranked Cardinal boasting the stingiest defense in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF), with just 4.73 goals allowed per game.

That defensive prowess will be on display again as the trio anchors the Cardinal defense in the program's hunt for its second national title as it opens play at the 2011 National Collegiate Championship this weekend in Ann Arbor, Mich

Judging from the goalies themselves before they took off for Ann Arbor, the unity and camaraderie that comes with playing such a demanding position has brought the trio closer together and fostered a sense of pride in its defensive accomplishments.

"The three of us have become pretty close over the past couple of years," Oland notes. "We have superstitions about when we jump into the pool, what time we get into the pool, certain questions have to be asked before we jump into the pool, Kate and I have to paint our nails before every game. There's a lot of superstitions and I think its because of how close the three of us have become."

The seeds of this trifecta of talent in the cage were planted back in 2008. Oland and Hall joined the program as freshmen and were thrown into the fire right away as the only goalies on the roster. Oland started 29 games that season, averaging 8.24 saves a game and posting a goals-against average of just 5.28 while earning MPSF Newcomer of the Year and third-team All-America honors. Hall, meanwhile, played in 14 games as a freshman, averaging 3.21 saves a game while allowing just 2.64 goals a game as Stanford ended the year with a third-place national finish.

The duo held things down in the cage for Stanford, which again finished third at the National Collegiate Championship in 2009, until a year ago when Baldoni joined the program out of Corona del Mar High School.

A member of the U.S. Junior National Team, Baldoni's addition made the Cardinal even more formidable in the cage. Together, the trio allowed just 5.04 goals per game while averaging 8.28 saves. Overall, Stanford would finish 26-3 on the season and reach the national title game for the first time since 2007. Unfortunately, the Cardinal's comeback effort in the title game would fall just short in a 10-9 loss to USC.

However, the Cardinal has returned even stronger in 2011. While the offense also leads the MPSF in scoring with 12.31 goals per game, the work of Oland, Baldoni and Hall has improved the Cardinal's defensive stats from a year ago.

"I think as a team in general we pride ourselves on having amazing defense, whether or not it is us in the goal or getting field blocks from our set guards," Hall says. "Teams win championships with defense, and we take it upon ourselves to start that in the cage."

The trio will get the opportunity to do that for three more games in Ann Arbor, which, coincidentally, is where the Cardinal's 2011 season began back in January. With one more weekend together before the end of Oland's and Hall's collegiate careers, one of the best goalkeeping units in Stanford history is savoring its chance to leave its mark on the program with a national title.

"I'm ecstatic, I'm so excited. I have so much confidence in our team and our defense and all of us," Baldoni states. "If we go out there and play our game like we have all year I think we have a great chance to win."