Stanford, USC rule in the pool
What happens between USC and Stanford when the two teams drop into the pool is less a water polo rivalry than a prolonged championship series.
Make no mistake, the elements of a rivalry are here, with intense games and crowded stands that can include USC fans chanting "Beat the Nerds!" But it's even more.
Stanford versus USC represents a collision of power programs. Top players push one another in the pool and coaches battle in recruiting, creating dynasties in a sport that has seen increasing parity around the country.
Stanford has won the past two NCAA titles, and USC took the one before that and has captured three overall. The Cardinal were runners-up in 2010, USC in 2012. They will compete in an eight-team field for this season's title in Boston this weekend. USC earned the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament based on a 24-1 record. Stanford (27-2) is seeded second as it seeks a third straight title.
The competitive seesaw has continued into this season. The two teams split the regular-season series before USC defeated Stanford last week in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation title game. The teams' only losses have come against each other.
Both have been ranked No. 1, with neither going lower than No. 2. You get the idea.
"It's intense and competitive and it brings out the best in both teams," Stanford coach John Tanner said.
The best may still be yet to come with another title on the line.
"We have created a great rivalry," USC coach Jovan Vavic said. "We respect each other, but it is intensifying because we know they are the team to beat."
The teams compete for rankings and championships and go after the same recruits as two of the nation's top academic schools. And the players feel all of it.
"They set a high standard," USC goalie Flora Bolonyai said. "You have to play a high level to beat them, but that makes you better."
Familiarity is a given here. Many of the players on both rosters go back together to their first days in the sport as youth players. Others know one another from high school and club teams and from international competitions, including last year's Olympic Games in London.
Bolonyai played for Hungary, which finished fourth. USC teammate Anni Espar played for Spain.
A trio of Stanford players -- Maggie Steffens, Annika Dries and Melissa Seidemann -- helped the U.S. win its first gold medal in the sport. Steffens was the leading scorer in the Summer Games.
"I think all of us have good friends on USC's team," Seidemann said. "One of the girls, I've been playing with since I was 8 years old. We are close friends until it's time to get in the water."
"I think what this rivalry has helped to do is create a powerful USA national team," said Vavic, who is the coach of the USA men's national water polo team and whose daughter, Monica, is USC's leading scorer.
"I see them as our ultimate competitors, a measuring stick," said Monica, who has 71 goals and 21 multigoal games this season. "Beating them always gives you a good feeling."
Tanner said collegiate women's water polo is growing stronger. Unlike in many other sports, the collegians are some of the world's top players. And more teams are becoming increasing competitive, particularly on the East Coast, where the sport was playing catch-up with established programs in the West.
"For example, on our team, with our whole senior group, I think you look in the water and you can't tell who the Olympians are," Tanner said. "The level of play is so high and the style is really dynamic."
Dries said the biggest challenge to the Cardinal comes from themselves, but she can't deny USC's influence.
"They definitely challenge us, and we thrive off of that challenge," Dries said. "Water polo is most fun for me when you are playing your best, and you can only do that when you are playing the best.
"We thrive off the challenge they present and it's something we look forward to. I wouldn't have it any other way."