SAN DIEGO – You know how coaches are always talking about taking it one game at a time? At Stanford, you could excuse the women’s water polo team for worrying about taking it one season at a time.
That’s because not only is Stanford the top seed in the 2012 NCAA Championship that starts Friday at San Diego State, and not only is Stanford looking to repeat as national champion, the Cardinal played this season without three of their stars who took the year off to be a part of the U.S. Olympic program.
Annika Dries, who would be junior, and Melissa Seidemann, who would be a senior, were huge parts of last year’s team that beat Cal in the NCAA title game, and Maggie Steffens held off on her freshman season to be a part of the Olympic team. All three find out their fates on Monday whether they get to make the cut for the team in London this summer.
“Redshirting those three girls, everyone is looking forward to seeing what they’re like next year,” Pomona-Pitzer coach Alex Rodriguez said.
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In the meantime, the Stanford team that is in San Diego is pretty stout, standing 23-2 as it opens the tournament on Friday against Pomona-Pitzer. Stanford’s only losses were to UCLA, 5-4 in a regular-season match on February 26, and 8-7 in overtime in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament championship match on April 29.
“We play at a really high tempo, we swim fast, our players think fast, it’s just a real uptempo game,” said 15th-year Stanford coach John Tanner, who played for the Cardinal as well. “It’s fun to coach and it’s fun to watch us play.”
He’s put together an impressive collection of talent, young and old and all from California.
“We have four seniors who are amazing and each do different things,” Tanner said. “Cassie Churnside [26 goals] is a lefty and a real strong offensive player. Tough-minded kid.
“Alyssa Lo [32 goals] who is a fast, upbeat, intense athlete who can do a little bit of everything. Monica [Coughlan] who is a defensive specialist who is also been setting a lot with our players gone for the Olympic effort. She’s had to step in and take on all sorts of roles. She’s been terrific. And Pallavi Menon [24 goals] is a great goal scorer and a terrific perimeter defensive player. So those guys have been the backbone of the team.”
Even with the exceptional class of seniors, consider that two freshmen, Kiley Neushul (55 goals) and Ashley Grossman (47) are the leading scorers and that Steffens isn’t even on the team.
“It’s a good class to have,” Tanner understated.
“Really our team is all about teamwork,” Neushul said. “Everybody has scored consistently throughout the season. It’s not one person at all. Maybe I put up numbers, but I’m at the end of the line sometimes. Other people are at the end of the line sometimes. It’s all teamwork.”
Seventh-year Pomona-Pitzer coach Rodriguez realizes his eighth-seeded Sagehens (21-16) are up against it.
“We know who we are. We’re a Division III program, we are excited about the opportunity, we have realistic expectations, but Stanford’s a great team,” Rodriguez said. “I actually enjoy playing them because they play very good water polo and J.T. does a great job with their girls.”
Pomona-Pitzer, which forms its teams from two separate colleges, Pomona and Pitzer, won the automatic bid from the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
Freshman Mahalia Prater-Fahey, who is from San Diego, scored in the third overtime of the SCIAC title game to win it. Another P-P freshman, Vicky Gyorffy, will get to see her sister, Rachele, who plays for Princeton. Princeton plays USC Friday.
This is Pomona-Pitzer’s fourth appearance in the NCAA Championship in the past six years, capturing seventh in 2007 and 2008. But barring what would be an upset of epic proportions, Stanford should be get through Friday’s quarterfinal as it seeks the school’s third NCAA title.
“We try not to spend any time looking backwards or too far forward,” Tanner said. “Just kind of do our thing every day and they’ve been great about that. Really disciplined and they’ve seemingly enjoyed every day. They’ve showed up with a great attitude and excited to practice. With that mentality it’s made a really inspiring environment to prepare and it’s allowed us to keep progressing through the season.”
Stanford also has three former players in the Olympic team mix — Brenda Villa, Alison Gregorka and Jessica Steffens, who happens to be Maggie Steffens’ older sister. Tanner said the younger Steffens and Dries and Seidemann have made every effort to watch the Cardinal play this season.
“The fun thing is they’ve been a huge part of our team this year,” Tanner said of the Olympic hopefuls, who train in Orange County in Southern California.
“They’ve gotten in the car and driven up. They’ve spent a lot of time on I-5. They’ll be here this weekend. They’ve made a lot of sacrifices to come watch us play and our team feels very much connected with their journey, too. We’re all looking forward to next Monday when they’ll find out if they’re going to London.”
In the meantime, there’s always next year, but not for Coughlan, the Stanford senior who finishes her career this weekend.
“I’m really bummed about that,” she admitted. “I was really hoping for another year with Mel and Anni, but I’m not going to be able to that. But we’re really proud of them and our whole team is behind them 100 percent.”