Sophia Monaghan feared that she might be in over her head when she joined the Stanford University women’s polo team last fall.
With Stanford boasting a roster containing mainly California natives, some of whom are national team members, Princeton resident and former Lawrenceville School star Monaghan realized that she was stepping way up in class.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Monaghan. “I thought I may not get much playing time but that I would learn a lot.”
Exceeding her expectations, Monaghan scored six goals this spring in her freshman campaign, seeing action on defense and at utility.
“I was surprised by how much I got to play,” said Monaghan. “I had never played at that high a level. I rose to the occasion.”
In the process, Monaghan helped Stanford rise to the top of the college water polo world as the Cardinals won the NCAA title, topping UCLA 9-5 in the championship game.
For Monaghan, the moments after the national title win seem surreal even two months later.
“I could see the coach taking his phone out of his pocket and taking off his watch with a minute left; we had our arms interlocked on the bench,” recalled Monaghan.
“We were up by four goals and I realized we are going to win this game. All the people went in the pool. Everything seemed crazy, things were out of focus. I was thinking did we just spend the last 9 months of our life working hard for this. We were getting hats and t-shirts; we had to be respectful when UCLA got its trophy. It was a slow, gradual process for it to sink in.”
Getting ready for the season entailed a grueling process that started last fall.
“Being on the junior national team, I was used to short bursts of long practices,” said the 5’9 Monaghan, who helped Lawrenceville capture the Eastern Championships in 2011 and 2012.
“This was an entire year of hard training and spending a lot of time with your teammates. We did three lifts a week in the fall and we would do swimming before and after. We had five 20-hour weeks in the fall with 2½ hours practice in the afternoon and one hour in the morning. We had a three-day camp during winter break, going six hours a day. After winter break, we had another camp and then we had a scrimmage tournament.”
Showing the fruits of that training, Monaghan scored a goal in the team’s 16-3 opening day win over UC Davis on February 1.
“It was a pass across the pool, I caught it and fired it in, like the way we practiced it,” recalled Monaghan. “It showed the trust I had built with my teammates over the previous four or five months and the communication that we had developed.”
Two weeks later, Monaghan tallied three goals in a doubleheader sweep of UC Davis and Pacific.
“That was the peak of my season; it was the last game that I scored in before I got a concussion,” said Monaghan. “I got knocked around and I had to sit out a week.”
With Stanford having lost to USC 10-9 in quadruple overtime in the 2013 NCAA title game, the Cardinal players were hungry to knock off the competition in this year’s national tournament.
“We had a meeting the day before the first game, one of the players had made a slide show of the season and it got emotional,” said Monaghan. “We saw how much the team meant to all of us. Also, we talked about how much the loss to USC the year before had hurt and how we didn’t want that feeling again.”
While Monaghan’s playing time was reduced during the tournament she did get a goal in an 18-2 victory over Indiana in the quarters and saw action in a 12-8 win over Cal in the semis.
While Stanford wasn’t feeling great in the title game as it fell behind 5-2, the Cardinal players showed what they had learned from their 2013 loss to USC as they rallied to win their third NCAA crown in the last four years.
“We started off slowly but at halftime I was looking at the seniors and the girls who were playing and I saw that no one was panicking,” said Monaghan.
“We are beyond confident and we know we can do this. We had been a second half team all year. We were so composed, both the players in water and those on the bench. It was just natural, we started scoring goals and played good defense.”
The experience that Monaghan gained this season has given her a lot of confidence going forward. “I am 100 percent better definitely,” asserted Monaghan. “My knowledge of the game is better. I am more comfortable with the people I am playing with. I am making plays, I am using my voice. People had to talk to me at first, telling me to speak up. My shooting has improved and my defending is better.”
Since the end of the school, Monaghan has continued to improve. “We went to Europe; we played the Dutch national team in the Netherlands and we played the French national team in Nice,” added Monaghan, who has competed for the Princeton Tigers Aquatics water polo club and the Nassau Swim Club Lemmings swim program in past summers.
“There was a lot of training, the trip went from June 19-July 3. Right now we are doing more training, we are practicing from 6-to-8 every morning. We have one tournament, it is optional. For me, it is a great way to get competition. We go through July and then I come home.”
Out of the water, Monaghan has found a home at Stanford. “I love it, the people are so humble,” said Monaghan, who is studying human biology and is thinking about eventually going to medical school and working overseas for Doctors Without Borders.
“A girl in my dorm is a famous fashion photographer and another classmate won the Fortune innovator award but they never talk about it. The academic people have so much respect for the athletes, saying I can’t believe you are doing that. Everyone has school spirit, people are for the football games even if they know nothing about it.”
Having earned the respect of her teammates, Monaghan is looking to be more of a factor for the Cardinals next season.
“I want to take on a greater role and be more of a presence,” said Monaghan. “I want to increase my playing time and be that first, second, or third sub off the bench.”