SAN DIEGO – Let the dynasty talk begin.
Now, after back-to-back titles, one can only imagine how good Stanford can be.
“Oh, my gosh, unstoppable,” Stanford senior Pallavi Menon exclaimed.
That’s because not only did the Cardinal defeat USC 6-4 Sunday to win the 2012 NCAA Women’s Water Polo Championship, it did so while redshirting three potential Olympians, two of whom joined the post-victory celebration in San Diego State’s pool.
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Stanford coach John Tanner is no fool. Right after Menon scored on a blistering shot from far out on the right side that hit the left goal post and rocketed into the net with just 1:11 left, he calmly walked behind the team bench and took his wallet out of his pocket. Two great saves by junior goalkeeper Kate Baldoni later, Stanford ran out the clock and the team and coaches made the traditional leap into the pool.
And soon after, Melissa Seidemann, who would have been a senior this year, and Annika Dries, who would have been a junior, jumped in too, clothes and all.
“Melissa texted me this morning, giving me a little pump-up,” Baldoni said. “I just responded, ‘Mel, you’re such a huge part of this team and I want to be able to hear you in the stands. You’re always with us.’ It’s so great, because they’ve come to more than just this tournament. They’re at every game they can possibly be at is great for our team and I’m so excited to have them back next year.”
“We miss them. We miss them so much,” said Menon, one of four seniors on the team this season. “They’re always in the back of our head. Melissa is part of this senior class and we miss their presence, but to be able to share this with them was incredible.”
Seidemann and Dries were both in tears afterward, riding the roller coaster that was a fantastic sporting contest and knowing that Monday they will find out if they make the cut for the Olympics in London. What’s more, incoming freshman Maggie Steffens is part of that pool of players, holding off her entry into college to stay with the national team. That takes Blue-Chipper to another level.
“They’re only getting better,” Menon said. “They’re going to flourish. There is so much talent, the freshmen coming in next, the freshmen this year who will be sophomores next year, and with Kate in the goal and her confidence, they’ll really be unstoppable.”
Talk about it. Stanford’s two leading scorers this year were freshmen. Kiley Neushul scored once against USC to give her 57 for the season. Ashley Grossman finished with 50. And sophomore Kaley Dodson, who scored twice against USC, finished with 34.
So this dynasty talk is not far-fetched, although Tanner laughed nervously at the idea.
“Hats off to our senior group. The four of them have been amazing and have just taken this team over and turned it into a special environment with their vitality,” said Tanner, who also won it all in 2002 and lost to USC in the 2009 final, also at San Diego State. “Usually seniors are looking at grad school, they’re thinking about the career, and the freshmen add the energy. Our freshmen have added a whole lot of energy, believe me, but the seniors are every bit as exuberant. It really is uncommon to have a group that is uniformly energized day in and day out.”
Certainly that was the case Sunday against USC. While Stanford (26-2) cruised into the final with a 17-5 win against Pomona-Pitzer and by beating UC Irvine 12-3, USC (23-6) whipped Princeton before grinding it out Saturday with arch-rival UCLA 12-10 in a hard-fought battle that might have taken more out of the Trojans than they realized.
Nonetheless, the Trojans took a 1-0 lead on a goal by Madeline Rosenthal in a contest in which scoring didn’t come easily. Stanford went ahead 2-1 on goals by Menon and Neushul, but USC tied it on goal by Colleen O’Donnell. But with 19 seconds left in the first quarter, Stanford went ahead again on goal by Kaitlyn Lo.
“We fought really hard and gave Stanford all they could handle,” said Jovan Vavic, who as USC’s men’s coach has won the past four NCAA titles and has won three as the Trojans women’s coach.
Neither team scored in the second quarter and at halftime, Baldoni was fortunate. She finished the game with 15 saves, but in the first half alone, USC had 16 shots and no less than five of them had hit the crossbar.
“They had a very good set of plays and they executed them well. Every time we scored a goal they’re execution of a center play was excellent and we made a couple of mistakes and they punished us for that,” said Vavic, whose only previous losses this season were three times to UCLA and twice to Stanford, all by one goal apiece. In the Trojans’ second match of the season, in the Stanford Invitational on Feb. 4, USC lost to the defending national champions 8-7. In the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation regular-season match between them April 7, the Cardinal won again 9-8 in overtime.
In the third quarter, Patricia Jancso tied it for USC just a minute in on a 5-meter shot, but Dodson made the Trojans pay just 10 seconds later with a sweep shot that was a stunner.
No one scored for the rest of the quarter. USC freshman Monica Vavic, the coach’s daughter who graduated from high school a year early to be with the Trojans, fired in a shot from up top with 6:57 left to make it 4-4.
The action went back and forth for the next two and half minutes before USC took the lead for good, 5-4, on Dodson’s shot from the left side. It came just after a Stanford shot was blocked but the Cardinal recovered and converted. Finally, with 1:11 left, Menon iced it and the celebration was inevitable.
Menon actually played with a torn ligament in her right – and shooting – elbow. She missed seven weeks during this season, electing not to have surgery but went through rehab, finally rejoining the team for the stretch run. She grew up on Palo Alto and Tanner and his staff have coached her since she was 9 years old in club water polo.
“The only water polo I know is JT’s water polo,” said Menon, a first-generation Indian-American who finished this season with 30 goals. “To finish out my career at Stanford with a win like this, winning it for the coaches, winning it for the team, it means so much.”
Tanner, whose Cardinal lost only to UCLA this season, obviously enjoyed this team all season.
“This group has an incredible spirit about them and an amazing attitude,” Tanner said. “They were relentless today. We really thought we could have gotten ourselves a two-, three-, four-goal cushion, and we just struggled to stay up by one. And Kate was absolutely phenomenal and finally Pallavi with that last goal to give us some breathing room at a critical time made for a great way to finish off a wonderful season with an incredible team.”
Now he has three national titles with perhaps more on the horizon.
“We’re looking forward to the fact that we’re not flying home till tomorrow and we get to spend another evening tomorrow,” he said.
And with that Menon finished unwrapping her right arm, Tanner grabbed his briefcase and they joined the Stanford team, where the present is great and the future couldn’t look better.