USC women’s water polo’s pursuit of back-to-back national championships was cut short on Saturday, as the third-ranked Trojans fell to No. 2 Stanford 11-10 in the NCAA semifinals in Indianapolis.
The 2017 season ultimately ended in disappointment for head coach Jovan Vavic’s squad, despite setting a national-record 52-game winning streak and opening the spring with 25 consecutive victories. USC didn’t have an answer to the Cardinal all season (1-3 in four meetings), and Stanford completed its Trojan-killing trifecta last weekend — snapping the streak in April and knocking USC out of both the MPSF Tournament and NCAA Championships.
The Trojans entered the championships as the No. 3 seed, coming off a third-place finish at the conference tournament. The defending national champions eased past Michigan to open their repeat bid at the IU Natatorium — 10 different USC players found the scoresheet and three goalies combined for 21 saves in a 12-6 victory, setting up a semifinal clash against Stanford — a repeat of last season’s national championship game.
Similar to four of the last five meetings between the two programs, one goal decided Saturday’s tilt. Stanford opened the scoring with a goal from senior Maggie Stefens, but junior utility Annika Jensen took a feed from freshman utility Maud Megens and slammed it home to bring the Trojans level 18 seconds later. This trend continued throughout the first half as the Cardinal edged ahead, only for USC to knot the game back up before Stanford could extend its lead. Megens, freshman driver Denise Mammolito, junior driver Brianna Daboub, junior utility Hayley McKelvey and senior driver Stephania Haralabidis all scored tying goals to send the teams into halftime deadlocked at six goals apiece.
The Trojans finally pushed their noses in front early in the third quarter. Megens powered in a shot from the point to once again break the tie, and Daboub turned in a pass from Haralabidis soon after to double USC’s advantage.
However Stanford roared back, scoring two unanswered goals after a timeout to tie the game for the eighth time. Haralabidis then set up Daboub for another goal to reestablish the Trojans’ lead, and sophomore goalie Amanda Longan turned away a Cardinal power play to maintain USC’s 9-8 edge going into the fourth quarter.
But heartbreak awaited the Trojans in the final frame. Stanford forced a 10-10 tie with 4:20 to play thanks to a converted six-on-five and Stefens’ fourth goal of the game, which cancelled out Haralabidis’ go-ahead effort just 14 seconds earlier. Less than a minute later, an exclusion on Megens set the Cardinal up on another power play, and junior Jordan Raney beat Longan to give Stanford its decisive 11-10 edge. Senior Gabby Stone saved efforts from Haralabidis and Megens in the Cardinal net, and USC bowed out of the NCAA Championships. Stanford went on to beat UCLA in Sunday’s final and lifted its sixth national title (USC has four).
With the 2017 season now in the books, the Trojans will graduate seven seniors before their next campaign, including three players who rank in the top 20 for scoring in program history: Haralabidis; her twin sister, Ioanna; and two-meter Brigitta Games. Though USC is losing a great deal of firepower on paper, the Trojans have finished in the national top five for 14 consecutive years. A new-look squad will look to make it 15 next season, in Vavic’s 24th year at the helm.