Many things in life come in sets of three — golf balls, for instance. Or the colors on a traffic light.
But when it comes to collegiate water polo, national championships do not typically follow that trend. Over the past quarter of a century, only one team has ever won three consecutive NCAA titles: California in 1991, 1992 and 1993.
This season, the USC men’s water polo team will aim to break from past precedent and win a third consecutive NCAA championship after similar success stories in the two years prior.
Yet it goes without saying that to do so is easier said than done.
Despite having arguably the top coach in the country in Jovan Vavic — who has led the Trojans to five national titles during his 17-year run with the program — and a roster full of talented underclassmen, USC must sustain the loss of 10 seniors, including Cutino Award-winner J.W. Krumpholz.
“It’s really big to lose that many seniors,” said junior two-meter Matt Burton. “Guys like [Shea] Buckner and J.W. were some of the best players in the country. So obviously, it’s huge when you lose guys like that.”
On top of its unusually high player turnover, the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation slate won’t provide the Trojans with many breaks either. The schedule is once again composed of some of the toughest competitors in the nation — namely Stanford and UCLA, two teams that have not only won conference titles this past decade but national titles as well.
“MPSF play is going to be very tough as usual,” Vavic said. “There are going to be at least five-to-six teams in our conference that can win it.”
Yet, despite these challenges, optimism continues to flow from the waters at McDonald’s Swim Stadium.
“We are a very young group, but a national championship is still our goal,” Vavic said after one of the team’s summer training sessions. “I think that out of all the teams I’ve had here, this is the best group in terms of having the desire and willingness to work. They’ll do whatever is needed to get better and compete.”
One of the primary reasons for Vavic’s confidence might be because of the return of three key juniors: Burton, driver Peter Kurzeka and goalkeeper Joel Dennerley. A year ago, Burton and Kurzeka tallied 17 and 29 goals respectively as part of one of the top offensive units in the nation.
Dennerley’s defense may have even been more impressive, as the Australian native totaled more than 200 saves and allowed just 4.8 goals per game in just his second year at USC. In turn, Vavic has gone on to give the 6’4” junior the highest of praise.
“Joel is the best goalie we’ve ever had. Period,” Vavic said.
With a wingspan of more than 6 feet 6 inches, and plenty of natural ability, it’s easy to see why Dennerley, who is also a member of the Australian national team, is receiving high praises. However, according to Vavic, it is not simply his talent that sets him apart from his peers.
“His biggest strength is that he’s extremely conscious and outstanding in his preparation,” Vavic said. “That really is what separates him. He really prepares. He knows the opponent. He knows where they shoot. He just does whatever he needs to do.”
While this season’s “big three” will surely be counted on to play significant minutes, they will also be asked to provide steady leadership.
“I really like the leadership of this team,” Vavic said. “Those three guys should be absolutely outstanding for us and be some of the best leaders we’ve ever had.”
But even with their leadership and natural abilities, if USC is to achieve its goal of a third consecutive national championship it will not be able to simply rely on three players alone. Instead, Vavic is emphasizing a more methodical approach, relying heavily on defense and counter-attacks instead of simply trying to outscore teams from the onset.
“We’re going to have to play a different style,” Vavic said. “In order for us to win this year, it’s going to have to be through more counterattacks and great defense. We’ll have to rely on [Dennerley] more than ever before. Some of the younger guys are really going to have to step up as well.”
Some of those inexperienced but talented players include sophomore two-meter Brian Boswell and sophomore drivers Stephen Siri, Michael Rosenthal and Forest Monroe. While each have shown the necessary skills to elicit praise from Vavic, they do lack the game experience that would normally make USC favorites to win the national championship once again.
Yet, the odds don’t appear to be very off-putting to the rest of the youthful Trojan bunch as it prepares for the upcoming 2010 campaign.
“We want to have the exact same success we’ve enjoyed the past two years,” Burton said. “We won’t settle for second, we won’t settle for third. That to us is failure.”