For once, it seemed as if the future for the No. 4 USC men’s water polo team looked a little hazy.
With the departures of eight seniors and an opening slate of games that featured two Division III opponents, few knew how the Trojans (4-0, 1-0) would respond to their first real test of the season, a Mountain Pacific Sports Federation home opener against No. 10 Long Beach State followed by a road trip at No. 8 Loyola Marymount.
USC coach Jovan Vavic said he felt his youthful bunch needed time to adapt to the rigors of top-flight Division I competition. Several players readily admitted to a lack of experience. And the pollsters were simultaneously in agreement, placing the Trojans below teams such as California and UCLA despite winning consecutive national championships in 2008 and 2009.
But none of that mattered Saturday or Sunday, as USC cruised to a 16-4 victory over Long Beach State and edged a 10-5 win over LMU, helping to quiet some of the critics who were emphatic that Vavic’s bunch was due for a dropoff in 2010.
“We were much fresher as a team,” Vavic said. “We were tired at times last week. This week, we played with much more energy and our counterattacks were huge in both games.”
If a quick glance at the scoreboard reveals anything, offense was at a premium Saturday, as the Trojans tallied 16 goals against a 49ers team dressing a total of just 14 players.
With a sizeable advantage in terms of depth, USC got off to a quick start, leading 7-1 after the first quarter, and systematically built up a 12-point differential en route to a resounding win to open conference play.
But credit the win to the upperclassmen and newcomers alike.
Although junior two-meter Matt Burton finished with a team-high four scores, freshman two-meter Jeremy Davie was equally as impressive, recording the first hat trick of his career.
“Burton played a great game,” Vavic said. “I think he really showed great leadership.”
Although USC flexed its offensive muscles Saturday, it was its tenacity and defense that shined through on Sunday.
Trailing 5-4 against LMU with 1:25 left in the first half, the Lions, not the Trojans, were the aggressors; and subsequently, USC found itself quickly in a hole.
But with just seconds remaining before halftime, junior driver Peter Kurzeka took advantage of a 6-on-5 opportunity, scoring a goal that would even the score at the break.
And then a strange thing happened: The Trojans outscored a highly potent LMU offense 5-0 in the second half following hat tricks from Kurzeka and Davie. Even with their string of six straight goals, however, it was the defensive unit, anchored by junior goalie Joel Dennerley, that guided the Trojans to their fourth win of the season.
“The defense was great,” Vavic said. “Joel did a very good job. We especially did a great job in the second half against LMU and did not allow any goals. That was fantastic.”
One weekend doesn’t make a season, but with the NorCal Tournament scheduled for next weekend, it already looks as if this young group is beginning to hit its stride.
“It was not an easy weekend, but it was a great situation,” Vavic said. “It’s going to give us confidence that we can come from behind, and showed we also have good depth as well. It’s very encouraging.”