By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor
Water polo is often cited as the most contentious of sports—and that physical intensity was on full display in Sunday’s NCAA Women’s Water Polo Championship final in the Uytengsu Aquatics Center. #1 USC and #2 Stanford were locked in a battle so heated that almost continuous intervention from the referees was required.
But it was not just sheer physical effort—though there certainly was a lot of it—that powered the host Trojans to a scintillating 5-4 victory over the defending national champions. After all the battles were over, and tears of joy and sadness spilled, USC Head Coach Jovan Vavic pointed to the defining factor of his 2018 team’s success: a collective will to win.
“I’ve had some good players before and some really tough girls, but with girls you don’t always get competitiveness—you have to find those kind of girls,” the sagacious Vavic said after the match.
“This might be the most competitive group I ever had.”
A rivalry intensified by injury
The story of Sunday’s final was written in matches almost a year ago. In a season where USC set an NCAA record for consecutive women’s water polo wins with 52, Stanford’s 12-8 win on April 8, 2017 not only snapped the Trojans’ streak. It sent them into a season-ending tailspin where they lost three of their final six matches.
The one that mattered—and hurt—the most was an 11-10 NCAA semifinal loss to the Cardinal. Both teams traded scores until the final period, when Stanford powered its way to a come from behind win. On Sunday, Vavic revealed one explanation for that loss; Brigitta Games, his All-American set played the second half with two broken ribs. Third on the team in scoring with 57 goals, Games did not score at all in the team’s most important match of last season.
For much of the 2018 season, Trojan and Cardinal were evenly matched, though it was USC who came away with wins in the last three meetings. An early encounter at the Barbara Kalbus Invitational on the UC Irvine campus was a total domination for Head Coach John Tanner’s squad. In the 9-3 victory, Stanford broke out to a 7-2 lead at intermission, then stifled a Trojan offense missing Maud Megen, the team’s second-leading goal scorer last year. Newcomer Paige Hauschild—who would end the season as the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation’s (MPSF) 2018 Newcomer of the Year and one of three finalist for the prestigious Peter J. Cutino Award—had yet to develop into one of the team’s best scoring options.
The next two match-ups were more to the Trojans liking. With Megen healthy and back in the lineup, a taught 8-5 win at Avery on April 13th presented a pathway to success; limit Makenzie Fischer, the Cardinal’s all-world scoring threat, and force the rest of the Cardinal to compensate. Fischer scored once, her sister Aria scored twice, and Kat Klass and Katie Dudley picked up the other goals, but they couldn’t overcome hat tricks from Hauschild and Hayley McKelvey.
The MPSF Championship Final two weeks ago represented a match-up of an entirely sort: an offensive explosion. The teams traded goals, but it was the Trojans who finished on top in a 13-12 overtime thriller that saw Makenzie Fisher score five times, Megens and McKelvey garner four goals apiece, and Hauschild netting the game-winner.
There’s nothing better that the best competing for a championship
That Stanford and USC were meeting in an NCAA Final for a fourth time ever was entirely appropriate, as both teams proved throughout the season that they were the country’s best. The Cardinal were the top team in the Collegiate Water Polo Association’s (CWPA) poll for 14 weeks—until the Trojans supplanted them on April 18 as the nation’s #1 team. In the build-up to the final, the strongest contender was #3 Cal, which had beaten Stanford in sudden-death overtime on March 4. But the Golden Bears got in an early hole and simply couldn’t catch up in an 11-7 Cardinal win in the NCAA semifinals.
The Trojans also got out to a fast start in their NCAA semifinal against #4 UCLA, and—despite a strong second half—the Bruins lost 10-6, the first time this proud program had lost four matches in a season to its bitterest rival.
In Sunday’s final, defense was at a premium, as both teams feinted and probed in a scoreless first period. It wasn’t until two and a half minutes into the second period that Stanford’s Jordan Raney—after being stopped twice earlier by USC goalie Amanda Longan—rattled the ball in off the upper corner of the goal, giving the Cardinal a 1-0 advantage.
It was a break from the officials that led USC to the equalizer. After McKelvey took what appeared to be an ill-advised shot, as Stanford was moving into position on offense, a contra foul was called, turning possession back over to the Trojans. Megen quickly passed to Brianna Daboub, who beat Stanford goalie Julia Hermann for the equalizer.
After the match, fouls were a sore point for the Stanford head coach, who called the flow of the game “Herky-jerky.”
“I don’t know that we’ve ever committed that many offensive fouls in a game,” Tanner remarked. “That really hurt us.”
A minute into the second half and with Stanford on the power play, lefty Madison Berggren beat Longans with a weak-side blast to put the Cardinal back in front. Denise Mammolito answered 30 seconds later, scoring with the Trojans a man up. Stanford again went up by one thanks to the Fischer connection, as Makenzie found her sister Aria in front of the USC cage.
With seconds left in the third period, the Trojans again benefited from an official’s whistle, getting the ball back in the Cardinal’s half of the pool. Then an exclusion to Raney gave USC a power play. Hauschild didn’t squander this gift, hammering home a shot from five meters that knotted the game at three.
The host Trojans get a lead… and hang on
The Trojans took their first lead of the match on their first possession of the fourth period. Mammolito overpowered Raney in front and beat Hermann at the 7:30 mark. But Stanford wasn’t done yet. Klass, the Cardinal’s #2 scoring option, took a pass from Raney and snuck a shot past Longans on the power play with less than six minutes remaining to tie the match at 4-all.
The next three minutes were nail-bitters, as the two teams traded offensive chances. A steal by Hauschild, her fourth of the game, with two minutes remaining was decisive. On the break—which was surprising in such a tight game—Kelsey McIntosh found Mammolito alone on the strong side. The sophomore calmly beat Hermann from in front to give her team a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
The Cardinal had one last push; with 22 seconds remaining Makenzie Fischer uncorked a wicked low shot from five meters that Longan was able to put a hand on. Getting the ball back with seconds remaining, the Stanford star was whistled for an offensive foul. The right call but, with 15 seconds left in a championship final, it was a surprising reversal that allowed the Trojans to run out the clock and celebrate a perfect 4-0 record against the Cardinal when it matters most: in the championship final.
On the pool deck, Lynn Swann, the NFL Hall of Famer who just happens to be the USC Athletic Director, marveled at the spectacle of his Trojan receiving their championship hardware.
Confessing that he doesn’t tread water “that well,” Swann observed that: “Most of the contact you don’t see; it’s under water.
“Both teams were very physical,” he added. “But none of them gave up.”
An apt observation of this Trojan season.