Stanford Staves off UCLA in OT, Advances to 10th Straight NCAA Women’s Water Polo Final

May 11, 2019; Avery Aquatic Center, Palo Alto, CA, USA; Collegiate Women's Water Polo: NCAA Semi Finals: UCLA Bruins vs Stanford Cardinals; Stanford Goalkeeper Emalia Eichelberger reaches to make the save Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne
The Stanford defense, led by goalie Emalia Eichelberger, was resilient when most needed. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Editor’s Note: The 2019 NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tournament is happening this week—and Swimming World has you covered! Keep up with all the action online or look for #SwimmingWorld on Twitter and other social media platforms.

STANFORD, CA. What began as a blowout for Stanford (22-2) turned into a nail-biter as the Cardinal lost all of an early five-goal lead before rallying to knock out the upstart Bruins (23-7) 8-7 in overtime of a 2019 NCAA Women’s Water Polo semifinal.

2019-ncaa-wwp-logo-apr19With the win, #2 Stanford advances to today’s national championship match against #1 USC at 3 p.m. (PST) at Avery Aquatic Center. The game will be live-streamed on NCAA.com; for more information please click here.

“We looked fabulous at the beginning… then it felt like we were in a constant uphill fight,” Stanford Head Coach John Tanner said of his team’s response to getting behind after opening with a big lead. “That was a really impressive display of resilience by our group.”

“To be on this stage, to fight back, to go ahead, and to have a couple of opportunities to win the game; I couldn’t ask for more,” UCLA Head Coach Adam Wright said after the match.

Explaining how a big lead can so easily evaporate, Ryann Neushul, a Cardinal freshman wise beyond her years thanks to a family commitment to Stanford polo, said: “You want to be ahead in the game, you want to be winning but you can almost get into a dry spell… where it’s really difficult to rally back.”

But rally they did, and it’s the Bruins who are going home as the Cardinal advance to the final later today.

UCLA again falls into a deep hole

As they had in two previous meetings, Stanford sprinted out of the gate, as Aria Fischer, Kat Klass, Fischer again then her sister Makenzie all beat UCLA goalie Carlee Kapana in the first five minutes of the match, opening up a 4-0 lead. When Aria Fischer tallied her third goal of the game half-way through the second period, it appeared that Stanford would cruise to its tenth-straight NCAA final.

But the Bruins had other ideas. Their comeback started slowly. Five minutes into the second, Rachel Whitelegge scored with UCLA a man up  making it a four-goal deficit. Roxy Wheaton’s tally 14 seconds before intermission—with the Bruins again on the power play—gave sustenance to her team’s comeback hopes.

“I had all the confidence in the world, down four-nothing, going into overtime thinking: we can do this,” Wright said about his team’s spirited comeback.

May 11, 2019; Avery Aquatic Center, Palo Alto, CA, USA; Collegiate Women's Water Polo: NCAA Semi Finals: UCLA Bruins vs Stanford Cardinals; UCLA Attacker Bronte Halligan shoots under pressure from Stanford 2MD/Driver Kat Klass Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne

The match up ended up all about defense – and who played it best. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

After intermission, with the Cardinal attack still cold, the Bruins heated up. Val Ayala beat Stanford’s Emalia Eichelberger with a long blast, then Maddie Musselman—who moves through the water with incredible ease—broke free on a counter attack and scored at the five-minute mark, reducing the Bruin deficit to a single goal. When Alexis Liebowitz scored the first of her two goals on a power play score at 3:55, UCLA had clawed all the way back, tying the match at five.

[Five Questions for Adam Wright, UCLA Men’s and Women’s Water Polo Coach]

For 17 long minutes, the Stanford offense, which came into the match averaging 16 goals a game, simply could not get untracked. And the Cardinal paid the price; when Musselman connected on the power play halfway through the final period, Stanford trailed for the first time all match.

Aria Fischer to the rescue

The Bruins were elated, but the Cardinal knew they needed to dig deep for an equalizer. Wisely, Tanner went to Aria Fischer, their current bread and butter. Sister Makenzie may get many of the accolades—including a nomination Friday as a finalist the Cutino Award, awarded annually to the best male and female college water polo athletes—but it’s Aria who has been delivering. Her five goals in Saturday’s semifinal gave her 34 goals over the Cardinal’s past 11 games, an impressive scoring streak that has been a difference maker as Stanford has won ten of those matches.

“She played great; she was terrific,” Tanner said about his other star Fischer. “She scored goals but she was also sensational on defense.”

Aria delivered again when her team need it most, ending a scoreless streak stretching back to the first period. She solved UCLA goalie Kapana on a wicked skip shot with three minutes remaining, tying the match at six-all.

Despite their disappointment, the Bruins had a number of chances to end the game in regulation; with 37 seconds remaining, UCLA had enough time for one final shot. But the Stanford defense was equal to the challenge, getting a defensive stop and pushing the contest to overtime.

May 11, 2019; Avery Aquatic Center, Palo Alto, CA, USA; Collegiate Women's Water Polo: NCAA Semi Finals: UCLA Bruins vs Stanford Cardinals; UCLA Goalkeeper Carlee Kapana with a save Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne

UCLA’s Carlee Kapana came up big in a losing effort. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

As happened in the day’s earlier match, extra time was not kind to the underdogs—though it took a period for Stanford to assert themselves. A scoreless first OT period gave way to furious finish in the second. A minute in, Aria Fischer shoveled a shot past Kapana from in front of the Bruin cage, breaking the tie. After an errant UCLA pass, Neushul then delivered the coup de grace, scoring with a minute left to render meaningless a goal by Liebowitz with 30 seconds left—and propelling the Cardinals to their 10th straight finals appearance.

‘We practice these situations time and time again,” Neushul, whose sisters Kiley and Jamie both won NCAA water polo titles at Stanford, said about her team’s ability to handle pressure-packed situations. “It’s impossible to replicate the crowd, but we were all prepared… this is like situations we’ve been in all year.”

[Stanford vs. USC: Tale of the Water Polo Tape]

Today’s title match with USC will also be a familiar—and pressure packed as well. Time will tell how the Cardinal will respond, but as any good student knows, excellent preparation is likely to lead to success.