During USC football’s home opener, many fans caught their first glance of the No. 3 USC men’s water polo team (8-0) as several returning players brandished their championship rings during a halftime ceremony honoring last year’s NCAA championship teams. Such swagger was justified this weekend, as the Trojans won the NorCal Tournament in Berkeley, Calif., topping three top-5 teams in the process.
Relishing the early-season opportunity to compete with other NCAA water polo heavyweights, the Trojans earned a spot in the NorCal Tournament’s semifinal round, after a 15-6 trouncing of Navy and a hard-fought 14-10 win over No. 5 UC Irvine. Against Navy, the Trojans took a narrow 8-5 lead into halftime, but managed to only surrender one goal in the second half. Four Trojans scored multiple goals, and the final outcome was never much in doubt.
After an afternoon respite, the Trojans returned to the Spieker Aquatics Complex to play, at the time, their highest-ranked opponent of the season, No. 5 UC Irvine. Freshman two-meter Jeremy Davie and junior two-meter Matt Burton led the offensive charge with hat tricks, as the Trojans managed to defeat the Anteaters much more convincingly than the final score would otherwise indicate, as UC Irvine managed late goals against primarily second-string players.
However, such games were peanuts compared to the two titanic matchups that awaited USC in the semifinal and championship rounds: No. 1 Cal and No. 2 UCLA. In the preseason, prognosticators considered USC’s young talent too unproven to repeat as NCAA champions, awarding the team a No. 3 national ranking despite its consecutive championships. USC coach Jovan Vavic said the team’s youth was a concern entering the tournament.
“Absolutely, because we’re so darn young and we’ve only been playing together for less than four weeks,” Vavic said. “Out of our starters, we have four players who didn’t play for us last year.”
In their semifinal contest against No. 1 Cal, the Trojans cruised into halftime all but assured of a victory with a commanding 8-4 lead. However, a third-quarter surge by the Cal offense tied the game at 10 apiece. If not for the heroics of junior goaltender Joel Dennerley, who made a clutch save with six seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, the game would have been sent to overtime.
The championship match against No. 2 UCLA followed a similar script as the Trojans amassed a sizable lead at the half, only to see the Bruins rally and take the lead in the fourth quarter. This time, the Trojans had to withstand a fourth quarter uptick in the Bruins’ play. Up to the task, junior driver Peter Kurzeka netted the winning goal in the waning moments of the game, thus completing his hat trick.
Although experience might help instill calm in players when facing pressure situations, talent does the heavy lifting and wins the games. Despite their youth, the Trojans showcased to their Mountain Pacific Sports Federaion foes the kind of talent these teams will face once MPSF play officially begins.
“It gives us great confidence moving forward. In both games we had big leads, and we threw them away. They were crazy games, but we didn’t give up,” Vavic said. “Our players stepped up. It was a complete team effort. Our goalie was outstanding. Jeremy Davie was wonderful in the semis, (freshman driver) Nikola (Vavic) had a great tournament, (sophomore driver) Tobias (Preuss) played well, and Burton was solid on defense. ”
Having knocked off six top-10 opponents already, USC is awaiting the No. 1 NCAA ranking. However, do not expect a change in the ranking to create an air of complacency at McDonald’s Swim Stadium practices.
“There are plenty of games left. We know what we need to do because we’ve done it the last two years,” Vavic said. “This was a huge tournament, but there are still lots of challenges remaining.”