By Jon R. LaFollette | May 14, 2017, 9:25 p.m. (ET)
Members of the Stanford University women's water polo team pose after winning the NCAA championship on May 14, 2017 in Indianapolis.

 

INDIANAPOLIS -- Maggie Steffens has won Olympic gold medals in London and Rio, and she’s earned collegiate titles in her native California. Almost any time the Stanford senior enters the pool, she comes out to collecting more hardware.

But for all of Steffens’ accolades, her final collegiate goal Sunday at the Indiana University Natatorium might be the most representative of her elite talents.

With nine seconds left in the NCAA women’s water polo championship game, Steffens scored the go-ahead goal to give Stanford is sixth national title, defeating the UCLA Bruins 8-7.

Everyone expected Steffens to take the shot, and Steffens expected herself to put the ball into the net. And that’s exactly what she did.

The Rio Games MVP scored a game-high three goals on five shots and was a resolute figure whenever Stanford needed one throughout the title game. Though the Cardinal never trailed, the Bruins never folded. UCLA outscored Stanford 3-2 in the final quarter to rally from a three-point halftime deficit, yet there Steffens was, putting in another signature performance to take home tournament MVP honors.

The win marks the first time this season the Cardinal beat the Bruins, having been swept in Pac-12 Conference competition.

That the title game ended in nail-biting fashion is no coincidence. Stanford and UCLA entered the match as the nation’s top two teams — the top-ranked Bruins lost just once prior to Sunday. Their respective successes are a reflection of their rosters, comprised in part of U.S. Olympians — two a piece: Steffens and freshman Makenzie Fischer for Stanford, and freshman Maddie Musselman and redshirt senior Rachel Fattal for UCLA.

Steffens is the most seasoned of the bunch, having won back-to-back gold medals in Olympic competition in addition to three NCAA titles. Not a bad résumé for a soon-to-be graduate.

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“It doesn’t really matter necessarily how you win,” Steffens said. “It’s who you win with. And I think that is something really special that, as a unit, we get to carry with us the rest of our lives. No matter if it’s NCAA championships or Olympic gold medals, when you see the final buzzer and you see your team has accomplished its goals, and that you did it together, that’s the most special thing you can ask for.”

Steffens said she intends to continue to compete with the national team and hopes to earn a trip to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, where Team USA will look for its third consecutive gold medal. She knows undertaking such a task will be daunting. But for Steffens, it’s merely another goal to strive for.

“For me, this sport has given me so much opportunity,” Steffens said. “Not only through water polo, but just lessons learned, connections made and pushing myself to that new challenge, that new goal. And I’d love to stay healthy and represent Team USA as long as possible, especially now that team Stanford is now officially over.”

Before Steffens books her flight to Japan, she’ll have to compete for a roster spot with her teammate Fischer, the second-youngest member of Team USA a year ago in Rio.

Fischer’s freshman season was bookended by Olympic gold and an NCAA title. She said her experience with Team USA was a difficult and educational learning experience.

“It definitely improved my water polo skills. I mean, you’re playing against the best in the world,” said Fischer, who tallied an assist and a steal in Sunday’s title game. “I think a lot of it was mental. I didn’t start out playing that well. That team was doing well, but I was just trying to understand that you can still play a huge role and not score all of the goals. I think that kind of mental edge has really helped me throughout this year.”

Though 2020 seems like a distant goal now, Fischer and other athletes continue their quest for Tokyo beginning with a Team USA workout next week in Los Alamitos, California.

But while Fischer continues growing into her role, UCLA’s Musselman showed she’s ready to compete now and gave a preview of things to come. Each of her goals came at pivotal moment for the Bruins. Her first put UCLA on the board with 3:11 left in the first quarter before scoring back-to-back goals in the fourth quarter to tie the game 7-7 with 51 seconds remaining.

“She’s a tremendous player,” said UCLA coach and two-time U.S. Olympic goalkeeper Brandon Brooks. “She’s mature beyond her years and I think she understands the culture with Team USA is great. The coaching staff do a great job of building up athletes, and she definitely has benefited from that in how she sees the game and how she approaches the game. We’re lucky to have her on our side.”

Jon R. LaFollette is a sportswriter based out of Indianapolis. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.