In the moments following another impressive victory Saturday afternoon, USC coach Jovan Vavic sat in his office overlooking McDonald’s Swim Stadium and declared that the No. 1 USC women’s water polo team was on a mission, poised and prepared to make up for its disappointing finishes in recent years.
The Women of Troy had lost to crosstown rival UCLA in the national championship game in consecutive seasons, and frustration was evident.
Eleven months removed from last year’s postseason tragedy, Vavic’s declaration came in response in large part, to the combined eight goals of seniors two-meter Kami Craig and drivers Alexandra Kiss and Kally Lucas that propelled the Women of Troy (19-1, 5-0) to a 14-5 victory over the visiting Bruins on an emotional Senior Day.
“Our team is determined,” Vavic said. “We know what happened last year. We’re a lot hungrier this season. Honestly, this team is just on a mission.”
If there was one thing the Women of Troy needed to do on Saturday, it was to crush the Bruins’ confidence by jumping out to an early lead, but at times that seemed easier said than done. Despite scoring on its second possession of the game, USC found itself trailing 2-1 six minutes into the first frame after two power play goals slid past senior goalie Tumua Anae.
“I have no idea why some of those things happen,” Vavic added. “I guess we were maybe a little tight in the beginning. We had some open shots, but we missed them.”
Even with their slow start, the Women of Troy got back on track quickly, tallying nine goals to build an insurmountable 11-2 mid-third quarter lead and thwart any attempt on the part of UCLA to take control of the contest.
“The name of the game is patience,” said junior two-meter Kristen Dronberger. “We didn’t force anything and just waited for the defense to make a mistake.”
Dronberger, who tallied the team’s initial two goals in the first period, helped USC find its offensive rhythm early on, but it was the seniors who made sure that the team would walk away with its 17th straight victory in hand.
Both Craig and Kiss, two of the longest tenured members of the team, recorded hat tricks in the final home game of their careers.
“There is nothing better than to play against our crosstown rival UCLA on Senior Day,” Craig said. “The whole time, that game felt like it was a one-goal game with so much excitement and energy. It’s just fun to see the team come out with so much energy and be so close.”
What makes this year’s edition of the rivalry different — USC also won 13-3 over UCLA earlier in the year — is a renewed focus on the part of Craig and company, especially on the defensive side of things.
“We had to maintain our focus throughout the game,” Craig said. “As soon as we scored our first goal in the second period, we just had to keep on with the momentum.”
Facing a potent Bruin offense, the Women of Troy, led by Anae, who finished with 14 saves on the afternoon, stifled UCLA for 32 minutes, holding them scoreless for much of the game.
With a road trip to Northern California on the horizon, the Women of Troy appear ready to build upon their most recent success.
“I like the progress we have made since the NorCal tournament earlier in the year,” Vavic noted. “I felt in the tournament, we were not a hungry group. We were not a determined group. Since then, I think that has clearly changed.”