“Always forward, never back” was the motto of Junipero Serra, founder of the California mission system.
It seems to suit Gabby Stone, as well.
The redshirt senior is a goalkeeper on the top-ranked Stanford women’s water polo team, which will partake in Cardinalpalooza on Saturday when it hosts No. 3 UCLA at Avery Aquatic Center.
The battle for first place in the MPSF standings between the Cardinal (17-1, 4-0) and the Bruins (18-1, 4-0) is scheduled for 3 p.m., or just as the football team’s Cardinal and White Spring Game lets out.
“When we’re playing, we try not to focus too much on what’s going on in the stands,” Stone said. “But it’s definitely a really fun environment to have everyone there cheering and supporting us. And that gives us an opportunity to show everyone what we’ve been working on every day at practice.”
Coming off back-to-back NCAA Division I titles on The Farm, the 23-year-old decided to postpone her senior season in order to train with the U.S. national team for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
It didn’t matter if the odds were stacked against her, with Princeton senior Ashleigh Johnson and UCLA grad Sami Hill considered two of the best goalkeepers in the world.
“Being on the national team and going to the Olympics has always been my dream since I was really young,” said Stone, who wasn’t selected for the final roster. “So regardless of my chances, I wanted to take a year off, see what I can do, get as much experience, get stronger. But after that time off, I wanted to really appreciate the time I have left at Stanford with this team. I’ve realized how special it is to be here.”
Always forward, never back.
“With the national team, in the position she was in, she was there for a ton of training, but didn’t make some of the trips when she would’ve gotten those really high-level, intense games,” Stanford coach John Tanner said. “So what we noticed was that she was really locked in, she was exhilarated to be back on campus, back at Stanford, but when the season started just a little rusty in terms of flow of the game. And that part has come along beautifully in the last month or so.”
The two most recent outings certainly lend proof to that train of thought.
Against No. 5 Cal in the Big Splash in Berkeley at the beginning of the month, Stone matched a career high with 15 saves in an 8-2 trouncing.
That was followed with 11 saves at previously No. 1 USC, which ended an NCAA-record streak of 52 victories in a row by the Trojans.
“She’s played in a lot of big games,” Tanner said. “And she was somebody we relied on game after game and weekend after weekend. The rhythm of the season, it builds. There are a lot of big games along the way, so having her back was wonderful.”
Growing up in La Jolla, Stone also played soccer and volleyball.
“I tried swimming, but that didn’t go over very well,” she said. “I never found that very fun.”
Instead, Stone followed in the footsteps of older sister Sally, who played goalie at Michigan.
“I thought that was the best of both worlds, putting that competitive game aspect in the water,” Stone said.
After an apprenticeship as a freshman in 2013, she took over between the pipes as a sophomore and helped Stanford claim the NCAA title in 2014, then repeated the feat the following year.
In her absence, Julia Hermann subbed in admirably as the Cardinal settled for a runner-up finish.
Hermann, a redshirt junior, returned to her backup role in 2017, while freshman Emalia Eichelberger soaks up as much knowledge as possible during practice.
“As a freshman, I had Kate Baldoni and Emily Dorst, who came before me,” said Stone, who relishes the mentorship role. “And as a senior I try to emulate what they’ve done. It’s really a supportive goalie culture, we’re all in it together. Even though one plays at a time, we’re all on the same team.”
As a goalie, the discrepancy between failure and success at times is a matter of inches, with a deflection off a fingertip capable of keeping the ball from piercing the cage.
“It’s a great feeling to block a ball,” Stone said. “I can’t really describe it. I’ve been trying to put it into words, but it’s that sense of satisfaction and confidence and power that you have. And also, just to have my teammate’s backs and to know that we had a successful defensive stop going forward.”
In turn, it’s the goalie’s job to jump-start the counterattack after a block.
“It’s an immediate switch,” Stone said. “I try not to revel in that happiness, because it’s always the next play going forward.”
With records dating back to 2001, Stone has a shot at passing Baldoni for second on the all-time list for saves in program history.
It’s an accomplishment she’s willing to share credit for.
“I’m the last line of defense,” Stone added. “So any shot that gets to me was perfectly placed. My teammates really make it easy for me for any saves that I have, and I wouldn’t be able to do anything without them.”
“It’s a tradition that goes way back with our program,” Tanner said. “And Susan Ortwein has coached the goalies all along, so when they come here they know the expectations are very high. They know that we will construct a defense around them where people have clear roles, so as a tradition we’ve held teams to very low goal totals.”
That doesn’t mean Stone will ever stop castigating herself after each moment of weakness — aka allowing a goal.
“It definitely still happens,” Stone said. “Being a goalie and the last line of defense, you always feel a little twinge of, for lack of other words, dissatisfaction of letting a ball go in. But throughout the years, I’ve learned to dispel that really quickly because it’s always about the next play going forward.”
Always forward, never back.