Stanford Women’s Water Polo Storms into Uytengsu and Beats USC, Snapping 36-Match Win Streak

No. 1 USC Takes First Defeat Of 2019 In 9-8 Overtime Loss To No. 2 Stanford.
Casey Moon, Interim USC Women's Water Polo Head Coach, was the center of attention on Saturday at Uytengsu. Photo Courtesy: John McGillen/USC Athletics

Stanford Women’s Water Polo came roaring back with a four-goal fourth, then withstood a late SC goal to score a 9-8 overtime win over the host Trojans at Uytengsu Aquatics Center. Not only did the loss snap SC’s 36-match winning streak, dating back to last season, it ended a four-game spurt of dominance by Southern Cal over the Cardinal, a run that included the 2018 NCAA Women’s Water Polo Final.

For USC (20-1; 2-1 MPSF), the loss was the first of Interim Head Coach Casey Moon’s brief career since he replaced Jovan Vavic, fired two weeks ago in relation with the Varsity Blues admissions scandal.

[After a Quarter Century in Troy, Jovan Vavic Fired as USC Men’s & Women’s Head Water Polo Coach]

“The biggest thing for us is our girls played with a lot of heart,” Moon said after the game. “We get better with adversity. We’re going to learn, we’re going to prepare… the season goes on.”

Leading the way for Stanford (15-1; 3-0 MPSF) was Makenzie Fischer, who registered a hat trick, including the game winner midway through the first OT period, as she speared a long pass from goalie Emilia Eichlberger while on her back, twisted and in one motion fired a strike past Trojan goalie Amanda Longan. Sarah Klass and Ryann Neushul each chipped in two goals for the Cardinal, while Eichlberger came up with eleven saves, including a critical stop late in the second overtime period, as the Trojans were knocking on the door for the equalizer.

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Stanford’s Makenzie Fisher. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

“Technically, [USC] did some really good stuff.” Stanford Head Coach John Tanner said after the game. “They scored on their first three 6 on 5s—and we missed our first three. Really, that’s the difference in the game. As we started asserting ourselves more, and stabilized our 5 on 6…it felt a little like it did last time, we spent a lot of energy getting back to even.”

Then, acknowledging that winning anytime against USC is special, he added, “We showed resolve in overtime—especially coming back after giving up the lead.”

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

Longan, the reigning National Player of the Year, was brilliant in the Trojan cage, making 15 stops, many of the circus variety. But she could not stop Fischer—a veteran of the U.S. gold-medal-winning effort at the 2016 Rio Olympics who has 60 goals this season—when it counted most. The all-time series between the two teams is now deadlocked at 36 apiece, and the Trojans are the only opponents the Cardinal does not have a winning record against.

Intensity in and out of the pool

The atmosphere at Uytengsu was electric, as might be expected at a match between the nation’s top two teams. But it was undeniably enhanced because of public relations fallout from the allegations against Vavic, the long-time men’s and women’s coach who was summarily dismissed when indictments were unsealed, alleging he had taken $250,000 in illegal payments to enable unworthy candidates’ admission to Southern Cal.

“Because everyone in the polo world thinks they can’t continue to win without the coach who did it before… as much as they love Jovan, maybe they’ll play harder to honor him,” Rich Fahey, father to senior Courtney, said before the match.

No. 1 USC Takes First Defeat Of 2019 In 9-8 Overtime Loss To No. 2 Stanford.

USC Amanda Longan stood tall against Stanford—again—but it wasn’t enough this time. Photo Courtesy: John McGillen

When Tilly Kearns scored a little less than halfway through the opening period, the USC partisan crowd erupted with joy—and perhaps pent-up frustration resulting from an investigation that is not close to being concluded. A second score by the freshman from Australia with just 35 seconds remaining in the period put the crowd in a state of near-euphoria, with chants of “Fight on SC!” being led by students and parents alike.

Early in the second period, with the Cardinal a man up, Stanford’s Neushul finally solved Longan, but then Trojan Kelsey McIntosh notched her first of three goals, and Courtney Fahey put the home team up by three halfway through. After the teams traded goals late in the quarter, SC was sitting pretty with a 5-2 lead, buoyed along by its boisterous fans.

But trouble lay ahead. Leading scorer Maud Megens (51 goals), was in Turin, Italy for the Europa Cup—a major loss for the SC offensive juggernaut that had bludgeoned opponents for 294 goals in 20 previous matches. And Paige Hauschild, number two on the Trojan scoring list with 30 goals, was focused on holding back the Stanford offense. She picked up a first period exclusion and then two more in the second half and was gone two minutes into the fourth period.

“For us to be empty-handed without our two best players at the very end, it’s okay,” Moon later said. “It’s next person up.”

But this time, it wasn’t. Last month, USC moved out to an early three-goal lead, withstood a Stanford rally to tie, then closed strong to win 10-8. Of course, that was when Vavic was still calling the shots. Moon, in his first high-pressure encounter, was dealt a tough hand, and in Coach Tanner was facing a wily opponent who knows how to make half-time adjustments.

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Among the USC faithful at Uytengsu there’s no quit. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

It took another period, but adjust the Cardinal did. USC had an opportunity to pad their lead when Hannah Shabb was called for a five-meter penalty at the 4:35 mark of the third, but Bayley Weber could not convert. Kat Klass brought her team within two when she scored on a power play goal a minute later to make it 5-3. Still, the crowd was confident, and when Alejandra Aznar, the Trojan’s freshman sensation from Barcelona, hit on a power play goal at 3:31, the lead was back at three. Longan and the USC defense weathered Hauschild’s second exclusion, but couldn’t stave off the visitors after a penalty to Weber. Mackenzie Wiley converted on the ensuing man advantage, beating the USC keeper with a brilliant bar-down shot.

McIntosh was again clutch as she converted on a long shot with a minute and a half left to make it 7-4 USC, and when Longan stuffed Fischer on a weak-side shot, the stars appeared in alignment for a Trojan win.

It was not to be, due to a fourth period surge of Cardinal young and old. First, senior Kat Klass scored at the seven-minute mark. Forty seconds later, Hauschild was rolled, and Klass’s sophomore sister Sarah beat Longan on a skip shot to cut the deficit to one. As the USC offense went quiet, though, the crowd did not; they continued to passionately exhort their girls, prompted by occasional encouragement from the Trojan bench.

But no amount of shouting could slow down Ryann Neushul. A compact 5-7, the freshman, whose sisters Jamie and Kiley are Olympians with gold-medal résumés, was able to power past a USC defender at the two-minute mark to beat Longan in front and knot the score at 7-all. When Fischer inexplicably broke free at 1:24 and converted on a long outlet pass, Stanford had overcome both a hot goalie and a raucous crowd to take its first lead of the afternoon.

January 27, 2019; Spieker Aquatics Complex, Berkeley, CA, USA; Collegiate Women's Water Polo:Cal Cup: Stanford University Cardinals vs San Jose State University Spartans; Stanford Driver Ryann Neushul shoots on San Jose StatePhoto credit: Catharyn Hayne

Stanford freshman Ryann is a chip off the ol’ Neushul block. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

But the Trojans and their fans were not done. Cassidy Wiley—along with the Fishers and the Klasses, half of three pairs of sisters on the Stanford roster—was sent off with 55 seconds left, and Denise Mammolito delivered for the Trojans, hammering home a skip shot to forge a tie with 38 seconds remaining. The crowd went wild, and their delirium crescendoed when Kearns stole an errant pass to give SC the ball with 16 seconds left. But, with no obvious scoring options left on Moon’s roster, the home team did not send its fans home happy.

An electrifying match, and more to come

Explaining how his team unraveled in the face of Stanford’s late pressure, Moon admitted, “We saw opportunities too quickly and tried to force balls in…and the shots didn’t go our way.”

Unable to convert with the game on the line, the Trojans and their coach were ultimately stunned as Fischer demonstrated why she’s the best female field player in NCAA polo.

“She’s an Olympic gold medalist—and a unique player,” said Moon ruefully. “At all times we’ve got to make sure we know where she is.”

Post-game, Stanford’s Coach Tanner—with 21 seasons of memories to draw on—mused about why a mid-season match between the nation’s two best squads was, at that moment, more important than any drama about who did what outside of the pool.

“The atmosphere, the fans…. That’s why we do this,” he said.