The No. 3 UCLA women’s water polo team (18-1, 4-0 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) heads up to the Bay Area this weekend to take on the newly minted No. 1 Stanford Cardinal (17-1, 4-0 don’t need MPSF second time), who last weekend put an end to No. 2 USC’s NCAA-record 52-game winning streak.
It’ll be a face-off between gold-medal teammates, a rematch of one of last year’s NCAA semifinals, the first time both teams officially square off in 2017, but perhaps most importantly, it will be for outright first place in the conference with just two weeks until the championship tournament comes to Westwood. Daily Bruin Sports reached out to the Stanford Daily’s Neel Ramachandran, who covers the Cardinal, to help preview the contest.
Daily Bruin Sports: Coming off a four-goal win over a team that hadn’t been beaten in nearly two years, from what you can gather, what’s the feeling like among the team right now?
Neel Ramachandran: It’s obviously a massive win, especially with having matched up against USC in the past couple years, losing a close final last year and taking another extremely close loss to them earlier this season. Obviously, how you’re playing at the end of the season is a lot more important, so I think the win kind of puts the team in the spotlight as the team to beat. …
I think in terms of the team’s actual outlook and mentality it probably doesn’t change too much, especially given that this is a team that’s been in this kind of position many times before. Every player that’s not a freshman on the team has played in at least one national championship and we have a whole bunch of players with one or two rings on the team too, so they know what it’s like to be at the top of the sport so it’s definitely a nice confidence boost, … definitely a good opportunity to get a little bit of revenge, but I don’t think it changes the team’s mentality in any big way.
DB: Both Stanford and UCLA have been boosted this year by the return of Olympians who took last year off for training. For UCLA it’s redshirt senior attacker Rachel Fattal, as well as redshirt seniors attacker Kodi Hill and defender Alys Williams who trained with the women’s senior national team. How has Maggie Steffens’ return to the team changed the dynamic for the Cardinal this year?
NR: Having Maggie Steffens back is just fantastic, and nothing but good things for us. She’s one of the best players in the world. Stanford plays great team water polo, but over the past couple of years now we’ve been really good. We’ve been lucky to have a couple of stars – Kiley Neushul a couple years back, and Ashley Grossman – and now for the last couple of years it’s been Maggie Steffens.
She raises the energy of the game while she’s in the pool even when she doesn’t have the ball, and she’s obviously a phenomenal player. She’s leading the team in goals this season and she’s climbing up our all-time goals record too. She’s within striking distance – I think she’s in third right now – but has a shot at finishing at the top by the end of the season.
DB: Both teams also have freshmen Olympians who have immediately burst onto the MPSF scene. UCLA has freshman attacker Maddie Musselman, who’s averaging over two and a half goals per game, just ahead of Makenzie Fischer who is averaging over two goals a game. What has her impact been on the Cardinal?
NR: I think she’s kind of a very similar player to Maddie Musselman. She’s been a huge addition for us. She’s very, very versatile on offense she’s kind of all over the pool, and she’s definitely given us a little offensive spark when we needed it.
We haven’t had too many close games this season, but she’s come up big when we needed her. Earlier this season when playing Cal on the road, I think she scored five in the close win. She came up big against USC – I think this past weekend she scored two of our first three. It’s scary seeing how much experience both her and Musselman have at such a young age, and I think that they’ll be dangerous on their teams for the next couple years.
DB: These two teams are the only two Big-4 teams that haven’t played each other officially this year. Stanford and UCLA have both played Cal and USC, but the teams’ last meeting was a scrimmage at the very beginning of the season. How has Stanford changed since then?
NR: For Stanford over the season, I think a lot has just been the team’s consistency. Offense has been on another level all season, maybe our best offensive season in the last couple years. If there’s one thing I can say that’s been big down the stretch has been Gabby Stone, our goalkeeper, who’s really blossomed during the season. She wasn’t too shabby when she came in, but she’s had a great season – just tied her career bests in saves, I think last week.
DB: Both teams are knotted at first place in the conference with just two weeks to go until the MPSF championship. What does this game mean for the conference playoff picture?
NR: We only have San Jose State left. I think this game is essentially – barring any upsets – kind of for the top seed in the MPSF, so huge game in terms of that. Especially with USC sitting at potentially (the) 2 or 3 (seed), whichever team loses this game might have USC in the semis of the MPSF so it should definitely be interesting. I think the stakes are high and there is a lot riding on this game.