Women's Water Polo: Baldoni shines as Stanford topples USC

LOS ANGELES — The first time the Stanford and USC women's water polo teams played this year, the Trojans lit the Cardinal up for 13 goals.

But that game was nearly two months ago now. Good luck scoring anywhere close to that number lately on Stanford senior goalkeeper Kate Baldoni.

Baldoni, a Corona del Mar High alumna, was this week's Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Player of the Week after anchoring Stanford's 8-1 victory over UCLA last weekend. She had quite an encore on Saturday afternoon at USC.

Baldoni made eight saves and the Cardinal never trailed the matchup of the top two teams in the country. No. 2 Stanford topped No. 1 USC, 6-4, handing the Trojans their first loss of the season and holding them to a season-low goal total.

In the process, Stanford clinched the top seed for the MPSF Tournament later this month.

"We played outstanding defense," said Baldoni, who was the MVP at the NCAA Tournament last year. "Last weekend against UCLA, we had some stellar field blocks. Going into today's game, we know their personnel, we know what their tendencies are. It was just really fun to go out there and actually execute on defense. A lot of fun."

Defending national champion Stanford (24-1, 5-0 MPSF) got a bit of redemption after falling to USC, 13-10, in the final of the UC Irvine-hosted Anteater Invitational on Feb. 24. USC (20-1, 4-1) took over the top spot in the country after that win.

Stanford Coach John Tanner said giving up 13 goals the first time was embarrassing. He was much happier with his team's defense in the rematch. The Cardinal held USC scoreless in the hosts' first five six-on-five opportunities, until USC's leading scorer Monica Vavic scored in the final minute of the match.

Stanford was active defensively, as Laguna Beach High product Annika Dries (two), Maggie Steffens and Kelsey Suggs each contributed field blocks. But credit also should go to Baldoni, who lowered her MPSF goals-against average to 4.26 per game. Only her freshman teammate in net, Gabby Stone, has a lower average of 4.22.

Tanner said Baldoni was "sensational" in the goal Saturday.

"She followed [former Foothill High star] Amber Oland [in goal for Stanford], who was at the game today," Tanner said. "Kate learned a lot from her, and applied that. She's just got an incredible focus and plays great in games like this. She's now turning mentor with our two younger goalies. You saw that our team fed off her energy and her intensity, but she's also spending a lot of time leading our younger goalies. It's been fun to have that tradition of great goalkeeping continuing, to see the generations here today."

USC was celebrating its senior day Saturday, a five-player group including former Newport Harbor standout Nicolina McCall and Newport Beach native Chelsea Silvers (Mater Dei). McCall, who scored 10 goals as a member of USC's 2010 national championship team, said she couldn't believe her college career was almost over.

"It's disappointing that we lost, but it's an exciting day," said McCall, who has scored seven goals this year for USC. "It's still your day. It's almost like another birthday, senior day."

McCall said it was fun matching up against Baldoni and Stanford. McCall and USC teammate Kaleigh Gilchrist, a fellow Newport Harbor grad, defeated Baldoni and CdM in the 2008 CIF Southern Section Division 1 title match. McCall scored the winning goal. She still remembers the final score five years later, 6-5.

"It feels the same," McCall said. "I mean, nothing's really changed that much, expect for we're both older. I still get to play with Kaleigh, and I'm playing against the same girl. It's still the same rivalry, except for different games, different teams."

Stanford started stronger on Saturday. The Cardinal opened up a 3-0 lead in the first quarter on two goals by senior Melissa Seidemann and another strike by freshman Maggie Steffens. USC hit the bar four times in the first quarter and didn't get on the board until Colleen O'Donnell scored bar-down with 1:12 left in the quarter.

Seidemann and Steffens, along with Dries, were members of the gold medal U.S. Olympic team last summer in London. They also are reasons why USC Coach Jovan Vavic said he considers Stanford the favorite to repeat as national champion.

"They have three Olympic gold medalists, and we don't have any Olympic gold medalists," Vavic said. "We have a couple of Olympians, [but] they are definitely a favorite. But I feel that when we play like we are capable of playing, that we can beat anybody. Today was not a good performance.

"We missed some shots, but still, we gave up easy goals. We let them counter us, and we were one-on-one with the player and that player would score a goal. We need to be tougher in those situations. They were manhandling us in some situations."

Gilchrist had a tough day for USC, going scoreless in six shot attempts and hitting the bar three times. Anni Espar scored twice for the Trojans, who close out their regular season at rival UCLA on Friday. They could see Stanford again at the MPSF Tournament, April 26-28 at Cal.

Stanford's regular season concludes with a nonconference match at Loyola Marymount on Sunday and the MPSF finale at Cal on Friday.

Baldoni said she and her teammates are excited to try to finish the season strong.

"I don't necessarily feel like we have a target on our back," she said. "Everyone's competition to everyone. We don't take any team lightly. We come out every game and play our best game."

Baldoni showed her best game against the Trojans.


Twitter: @mjszabo

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