As Stanford and USC players shook hands after their game, the Trojans all were looking down, not a single person with a smile. USC’s NCAA-record 52-game winning streak had just been snapped.
The team that handed the then-No. 1 Trojans their first loss in nearly two years will face No. 3 UCLA women’s water polo (18-1, 4-0 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) in the Bay Area.
“It’s going to be a really exciting and fast-paced game,” said freshman utility Bronte Halligan. “There are only four or five more weeks until the end of the season, so these are the important games and the games we really want to win.”
UCLA and No. 1 Stanford (17-1, 4-0) currently sit atop the MPSF standings, but with two games left on each team’s schedule, the conference championship title is still up in the air. For UCLA, the last two regular season games are against Stanford and No. 2 USC. Two wins will solidify the Bruins as the No. 1 seed for the MPSF championships tournament, but one loss will result in the Bruins being either the No. 2 or No. 3 seed.
“Obviously it adds to wanting to win these games,” said senior attacker Kelsey O’Brien. “But I think we’re more just focused on the process of getting there and taking control of these games as much as we can.”
But there are more dynamics to the game beyond its postseason implications.
This matchup will serve as a reunion of Olympians who won gold in Rio last year, but rather than playing together, they’ll be pitted against one another.
Stanford’s senior driver Maggie Steffens and freshman driver Makenzie Fischer were members of the 2016 USA Olympic team alongside UCLA’s freshman attacker Maddie Musselman and redshirt senior attacker Rachel Fattal. Steffens was also a member of the 2012 roster during the London Olympics, making her the only active collegiate women’s water polo player to have two gold medals.
Steffens and Fischer are in the top five in MPSF in goals scored with 47 and 40, respectively.
“Those two in particular are good shooters and read the game well,” said coach Brooks. “Team defense will be very important and we have to limit their opportunities as much as possible.”
Halligan is another UCLA player who has history with Steffens and Fischer as she has competed against them on different national teams. Knowing how they play, Halligan believes that always having a key player on defense against them will be enough to control them on offense.
“We just need to know what their strengths and weaknesses are,” Halligan said. “Whether that’s double-teaming them or making other players step up and shoot instead of them.”
Other than a scrimmage in the beginning of the season, UCLA and Stanford have yet to square off in an official game. They are the only two Big Four schools – Cal, Stanford, USC and UCLA – that haven’t played each other so far this year.
Stanford and UCLA have two very similar playing styles, according to O’Brien. Both teams are notoriously known for physical defense and for their ability to get out and run on the counter attack.
“They play real hard and physical games which is what we want to do also,” O’Brien said. “In practice we’ve been working on that and just trying to be ready to come out and do what we do before they do it to us.”