High drama and USC men’s water polo home games have rarely gone together over the past few years.
But with the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation regular season title on the line, that’s exactly what the packed house at McDonald’s Swim Stadium got — senior driver Justin Rappel hitting on two dramatic scores late in the game — as No. 1 USC edged Stanford 13-12 in overtime early Saturday afternoon.
On a 37-game winning streak at home that spans nearly five seasons, the Trojans have rarely dealt with late-game pressure, but the No. 3 Cardinal (19-2, 6-1) proved hard to handle.
Rappel and the Trojans (21-1, 7-0) dealt with ferocious Stanford offensive attack and defensive pressure all game. Unable to stop Stanford after holding them to a single goal in the first period, the Trojans were forced to counter with some offensive fireworks of their own.
Senior two-meter Jordan Thompson played what USC coach Jovan Vavic called “the best he has ever played for us,” scoring four goals and firing up the Homecoming Weekend crowd, who were hooked on the energy the senior was bringing to the pool.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story of Thompson’s dominant day.
“Not only did he score four goals, but he drew five ejections,” Vavic noted.
The six-on-five advantages that the Thompson and the Trojans drew were especially important for USC, who needed all the help they could get on offense. By the end of the match, the Trojans had given their worst defensive effort of the season, the 12 goals the most they had given up since 2006.
As the fourth quarter came to a close, Stanford’s senior Janson Wigo scored his fourth goal to put the Cardinal up 11-10 with three minutes remaining. Down for the second time in the quarter, the Trojans looked on the brink of defeat, but senior two-meter Shea Buckner’s second goal of the game on a man-up advantage evened the score.
After both teams locked down their defenses late in the quarter, a miscue on the Cardinal offensive side of the ball with less than 30 seconds remaining allowed a Trojan fast-break opportunity, which Rappel converted.
But nearing victory, the Trojans had a collective mental slip.
An exclusion was called just three seconds into the Cardinal possession, and with just four ticks remaining on the clock, Cardinal sophomore Jacob Smith scored, sending the game into overtime. The mental side of the game had been a trouble spot for the Trojans all day.
“We lost our focus during the game and got away from our basics,” Vavic said.
Knowing that he had to rely on his group of record setting seniors for the overtime period, Vavic let his team play, and they rewarded his confidence, as Rappel scored his fourth goal of the game early in the first overtime period.
Absent all game, the Trojan’s nation best defense woke back up for the overtime period, silencing the Cardinal for good, and delivering the Trojans a MPSF title and their 50th victory in their last 51 contests.
Not lost to Vavic was what the game taught him about his current edition of Trojan water polo.
“You’re not always going to have a great game, you’re not always going to do the right thing,” Vavic said. “When you go down twice in the fourth quarter and you come back twice, still continuing to fight, that’s a great sign.”