Stanford tops USC 11-10 in Thrilling 2017 NCAA WWP Semifinal Match

Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

INDIANAPOLIS, IN. In what Stanford head coach John Tanner described as one of the best collegiate water polo matches he’s been involved in, on Saturday his team rallied from a two-goal second half deficit to beat USC 11-10 in an NCAA women’s water polo semifinal match.

“The energy that was sustained throughout the game, the quality of play, it was really great to be a part of,” Tanner said in remarks following the match.

With the win the second-seed Cardinal advance to the program’s eighth consecutive NCAA championship game where they will face top seed UCLA, a 14-11 winner over California in a semifinal match earlier in the day. The 2017 NCAA Women’s Water Polo title game will take place at 3 p.m. (EDT) today in the Indianapolis Natatorium.

USC, defending NCAA champions, go home after opening the season with 25 straight wins, part of an NCAA women’s water polo record 52-match winning streak.

A rematch of a Mountain Pacific Sports Tournament (MPSF) semifinal matchup exactly two weeks ago won 6-5 by Stanford, the Cardinal and the Trojans have now met four times this season, with Stanford winning that last three, including two when titles were on the line.

In Saturday’s match, MPFS Player of the Year Maggie Steffens—also a finalist for the 2017 Peter Cutino Award, given annually to the country’s best women’s collegiate water polo player—demonstrated her determination to get Stanford yet another NCAA title, which would be her third in Cardinal colors. She notched four goals on the afternoon, including three straight to open the game, leading all scorers.

Afterwards Steffens, who is a two-time MVP on Team USA’s 2012 and 2016 Olympics gold medal winning squads, spoke about how much playing for Stanford means, especially as she comes to the end of her collegiate career.

“Whatever happened in the past, those were different years,” she said. “We’re a completely different team this year but the one thing we have is we are representing Stanford.”

“There’s pride and confidence that you can take from your past experience, but there’s also lessons that you can learn from your failures,” Steffens added. “For us it’s taking what we’ve learned and trying to channel that when we need it most.”

USC head coach Jovan Vavic, who in little more than a month has seen his Trojan’s winning streak snapped, to an MPSF tournament loss to having their back-to-back NCAA title hopes dashed—all by Stanford—was complimentary of the Cardinal captain.

“Maggie’s just a unique player, one of the best in the world,” a subdued Vavic said following the match. “She really took it to us.”

In the first half his team used balanced scoring to counter Steffen’s offensive dominance. Six different Trojans connected to forge a 6-6 halftime tie. USC took its first lead of the game when freshman Maud Megens connected on her second straight score with six minutes remaining in the third, a lead that swelled to two a minute later as junior Brianna Daboub connected for the second of her three goals.

It’s then that Steffens and her teammates dug deep for the win.

Stanford’s Madison Berggren scored at 4:46, and a lob shot 40 seconds later by sophomore Kat Klass just eluded the fingertips of USC goalie Amada Longan tying the match at eight. Daboub beat Cardinal goalie Gabby Stone on a tip-in off a pretty feed from Stephania Haralabidis, putting Stanford in a 9-8 deficit entering the fourth period.

Jordan Raney then made her presence felt on both sides of the ball. She scored at 5:01 with Stanford on a power play. After Haralabidis, the reigning Cutino Award winner, gave USC a 10-9 lead halfway through the period, Steffens fought off an attacker to tie the game at 10 with a 5-meter blast past Longan. With 4:20 remaining Raney and the Cardinal again capitalized on the man advantage. The junior defender roofed a 4-meter scorcher to put her team ahead for good.

After three-plus quarters of offensive dominance, Stanford’s interior defense is what decided the match. Raney and junior Shannon Cleary had the unenviable assignment of bottling up Brigatta Games, USC’s 6-1 holeset. As the clock on their season ticked down, the Trojans repeatedly dumped the ball to Games in hopes of an equalizer, but Raney and Cleary were able to prevent the powerful Trojan from setting up for a shot.

“These past few weeks we were watching film on her, trying to figure out how to defend her,” Cleary said in an understatement as Stanford held Games, USC’s second-leading scorer this season with 57 goals, scoreless. “I think it really came together well today.”

Tanner pointed out that team defense has been the critical element in Stanford’s unparalleled run of success in NCAA tournament play.

“We have a tradition of people who are great in those big moments,” he said. “It’s started with the core of our defense—goal-keeping and two-meter defenders—and with the mentality that we’ll have each other’s backs.”