Completing one of the most hectic weekends in team history, the USC men’s water polo team captured its seventh-straight SoCal Tournament title with a 7-6 victory over No. 4 California Sunday night to finish a stretch of six games in three days on a high note.
The Trojans (16-1, 3-0), had defeated the Golden Bears in their two previous meetings this season — both by scores of 8-6 — and looked ready to take it to California (11-4) as soon as the two teams got into the pool.
Senior two-meter J.W. Krumpholz scored just 27 seconds into the first quarter to put USC up an early goal. The senior’s second goal of the tournament invigorated the Trojan-friendly crowd at UC Irvine’s Anteater Pool, but was quickly equalized 41 seconds later by the strong Bear attack.
Senior drivers Justin Rappel and Matt Sagehorn each added goals for the Trojans before the Bears could score again, which came when Cal sophomore Ivan Rackov converted on a 6-5 advantage with less than three minutes left in the half.
Throughout the first half, the Trojans had multiple scoring opportunities, but stellar defensive plays from Cal’s goalie, sophomore Wil Topen, held the Trojan offense in check.
“For them it was all about taking our two-meter men away from us,” Rappel said.
But the team’s familiarity with the Bears helped them plan for Cal’s strategy.
“Just like us, they have a plan that they use against us, a lot of it is anticipating what they are going to do and plan for that,” Rappel said. “There are definitely tendencies that we can see with them.”
Topen was finally broken again when redshirt junior driver Kyle Sterling netted a shot with 1:19 left in the half to put the Trojans up 4-2.
Coming back from the break, both teams stepped up their defense, holding the quarter scoreless until a second goal from Sterling opened a floodgate.
From the time Sterling scored, with 5:03 remaining in the third quarter, the teams exchanged goals on four consecutive possessions, including senior two-meter Jordan Thompson’s third goal of the tournament, and left the score at 6-4 heading into the final frame.
Sophomore driver Peter Kurzeka’s goal, which proved to be the game-winner, punctuated an otherwise defensive-dominated quarter, as the Trojans were able to hold on for a 7-6 victory.
To get a chance at the Bears on Sunday night, the Trojans had to avenge their only loss of the season in the SoCal tourney’s semifinal against No. 2 UCLA.
The Bruins (12-4), who had beaten the Trojans by one goal three weeks ago, had the favor returned to them in Irvine by the Trojans. Senior two-meter Shea Buckner’s goal with 1:49 left on the clock gave the Trojans a 9-8 victory.
“This time around we just stuck to our game plan more,” Rappel said.
On Saturday, the Trojans breezed through the early portions of the SoCal event, dominating No. 17 Bucknell and No. 6 UC Santa Barbara by a combined score of 38-7. Buckner was the star of the early games, netting six goals in the two victories.
Friday held an unusual event for the Trojans — a home game — and they took full advantage, beating No. 15 Princeton 14-3 for the team’s 35th straight home victory. Krumpholz, last year’s Peter J. Cutino Award winner, shone brightly in McDonald’s Swim Stadium, scoring five of the Trojans’ goals, including four of the Trojans’ seven goals in the second quarter.
The Trojans finished up their daylong home stand with a 9-6 exhibition victory over Golden West College, which is widely considered among the best community college water polo teams in the nation.
Six games in three days is not an easy task, and was a new experience for most of the Trojans, but the exhaustion was worth the trouble.
“It’s always hard to play that many games, but winning helps,” Rappel said.