It is said that USC’s football team does not rebuild, but, rather, reloads, and the same can be said for at least one other team at USC this year.
The USC men’s water polo team is coming off of two national championships in four years and a perfect 29-0 season in 2008. And as a new season approaches, it seems to be business as usual for the Trojans.
“I have no doubt that we’ll have the best team in the country this year, but it’s just a matter of how we approach the season,” said senior two-meter Jordan Thompson.
Thompson joins two-meters J.W. Krumpholz and Shea Buckner, and driver Matt Sagehorn as part of a nine-member senior class that has had more than its fair share of experience winning matches.
Krumpholz, the 2008 recipient of the Peter J. Cutino award (annually given out to the top player in men’s water polo), leads a returning offense that accounted for most of the Trojans’ scoring last season. Sagehorn, Buckner and senior Justin Rappel all played a large role in the offense, with each scoring at least 20 goals last year.
“The senior class we have has been outstanding, and the experience of playing in so many games together is a big part of it,” said coach Jovan Vavic, who recorded his 300th career win at USC last season. “What makes this class so special is it’s very balanced. It’s difficult to have so many guys stay together.”
Overall, six of USC’s starters, five of whom are All-Americans, return from last year’s championship team, including goalkeeper and Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Newcomer of the Year Joel Dennerley. Dennerley anchored a Trojans’ defense last season that allowed the fewest goals out of any team in the nation and was considered by some to be one of the greatest defenses in collegiate history.
While the returning starters are a cause for optimism, the Trojans did lose a large part of the defense, with the departure of team leaders Arjan Ligtenberg and Jovan Vranes. The two had been on the team since USC’s last national championship season in 2005 and provided the Trojans with skill and experience in the driver position.
Both Ligtenberg and Vranes earned All-American second- team honors in 2008, and played a pivotal role in shutting down Stanford’s offense in last years’ national title match.
“Arjan and Jovan were huge players on our team. Defensively, yeah, it’s going to be challenging,” said Buckner of his former teammates. “They filled a lot of holes and did a lot of roles that were really valuable to the team. I think we’re going to recover from it, maybe even excel, but yeah, it’s definitely going to be hard.”
USC will get its first test without Vranes and Ligtenberg this upcoming weekend when it competes in the Triton Invitational tournament in La Jolla, Calif.
Last year, the Trojans swept the tournament, but it was not without struggle. After demolishing Division-III Claremont, 28-2, USC met head-on with Loyola Marymount University in the semifinals. The Trojans jumped out to a 6-2 lead, but LMU fought to bring the game to sudden death.
USC was able to salvage the victory with a late goal, which effectively paved the way for a spot in the championship, an eventual tournament win and an undefeated season.
USC will play in three tournaments this season — the Triton, NorCal, and SoCal invitationals — in addition to the MPSF and NCAA championship tournaments at the end of the year. Several key regular season matchups for the Trojans are sprinkled throughout their schedule, with the Cal game in early October and the Stanford and UCLA games in mid-November.
“We always look forward to playing [Cal],” said Buckner of USC’s highly anticipated games. “Stanford, we want to give it to them too, so we’re definitely excited for that match. UCLA as well. All those games are huge.”
And as with any team finding consistent success year in and year out, the target on the Trojans’ head only seems to grow.
“It’s expected that we’re going to be out there to compete,” added Thompson. “Obviously last year was an incredible anomaly, and we’re going to have a little bit extra pressure on us. I’m excited.”