LOS ANGELES -- It’s not difficult to figure out who the favorite is to win this year’s National Collegiate Women’s Water Polo Championship, since it's the same team which has been been chosen in that role the past five years.
And there's a good reason Stanford is at the top of the prognosticators' lists. The program has a long history of excellence in the sport and this year figures to be no different. The No. 1 ranked Cardinal will try and win its third title in four years when play begins Friday at Southern California’s Uytengau Aquatic Center.Stanford is the only team to have competed at all 13 NCAA Championships since the tournament’s inception in 2001 and has finished in the top three nationally each season since 1997.
The team has won the national championship three times -- in 2002, 2011 and 2012 -- and has been in the final game six other times.
A large reason for the success is coach John Tanner, who took over the Stanford program in 1997 and quickly built it into a national power. In addition to three championships, Tanner has won four Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Championships and coached 18 U.S. Senior National Team members and nine Olympians. Tanner has amassed an impressive 402-60 record, including 32-1 this season.
“This year, what’s been great has been the balance on this team,” Tanner said. “We don’t have to depend on one or two players. We are getting contributions from everyone.”
The team also has the memory of having missed winning its third consecutive championship and fourth overall last year, losing to USC in five overtimes.
“It was an epic game and a tough one to lose,” Tanner said. “I haven’t forgotten it, but we didn’t need any more motivation coming into this year.”
But being ranked behind No. 1 USC did perturb the team. They lost the top spot by a single vote in the preseason poll and worked on getting back to No. 1. They were plowing through teams early in the season, outscoring opponents 121 to 49 in their first nine games of the year.
“We have a whole lot of good teams, but haven’t had a lot of close games,” Tanner said. “These athletes are used to the competition.”
After an early-season loss to UCLA, the only blemish on Stanford's season, the team was in top form by the time they met USC again. This time, the Cardinal earned a measure of revenge with a 9-5 win. Just to prove their lone loss was perhaps a fluke, Stanford has beaten the Bruins the other three times it was played them, including a one-goal victory in the MPSF Championship.
“I don’t think I had us ready to play,” Tanner said, taking sole blame for the loss. “We weren’t sharp. We got into a hole and couldn’t climb out of it.
“We’re improved from top to bottom,. It’s made us resilient and given us a lot of options.”
Barring any upsets, Stanford and USC are expected to meet in the finals and Tanner is confident his team will be ready.
“We are playing really well right now,” Tanner said. “We have a solid team and we’ve been here before.”