Nikola Vavic is still young.
Young enough to sport a few leftover pimples from the eighth grade on his forehead; young enough to interject the word “like” between sentences.
The play from the USC men’s water polo team’s freshman driver, however, would indicate otherwise.
So far in 2010, Vavic, who also happens to be the son of head coach Jovan Vavic, leads the No. 1 USC men’s water polo team in scoring with 29 goals.
“I didn’t even know that until Saturday after the [Cal] game,” said the younger Vavic. “I never thought I’d be leading the team, especially not as a freshman.”
But circumstances beyond his control thrust the Loyola High School standout into a starring role.
The Trojans, coming off back-to-back national championships in 2008 and 2009, have been expected to struggle with the departures of nine seniors and a current roster that includes just five upperclassmen — all juniors.
Subsequently, Vavic has seized the opportunity to become a starter, despite his lack of experience on the collegiate level.
“It just worked out that I had a spot because of everyone who had left,” Vavic said. “I was going to play the same way, no matter who was here, but it did help me stay motivated, seeing that there would be more opportunities to play.”
But actually securing a starting spot would be a stiff challenge with a Trojan roster cluttered with other talented underclassmen.
“We have some good foreigners too, so it wasn’t like I saw a suffering team and would just jump right into it,” Vavic added.
But if anything could unseat the freshman’s attempt to crack the starting unit, it would be an offseason workout schedule that would seriously test his durability and potentially shatter his confidence. Beginning in May and concluding with coach Vavic’s notorious “hell month” in August, players were put through a series of conditioning drills that would otherwise appear borderline insane.
“It was really rough,” Vavic said. “It was much harder than anything I had ever done before.”
To make matters even more challenging, Vavic contracted mononucleosis in early June, just before the team’s three-week break, setting him back in terms of conditioning amid the team’s summer workout program.
“I was just dead,” Vavic said. “I got it before the break, so when we got back, I was just completely exhausted. It was really hard, and I [was] just trying to keep up.”
And while recovering from the illness, Vavic also found himself living at home in the South Bay with his father — the coach.
“It was weird, especially being at home and going back and forth from practices with him,” Vavic said. “That was ridiculous. That was a little too much to handle.”
But eventually, the younger Vavic moved to USC’s campus, recovered from mononucleosis and maneuvered his way into the rotation for the team’s Sept. 4 season opener against Redlands during the UCI Invitational. A day later, Vavic continued his ascent, notching his first hat trick of the season against Whittier College.
But if you’re looking for a defining moment in Vavic’s young but stellar career, then an Oct. 3 matchup with crosstown rival UCLA in the finals of the SoCal Tournament might suffice.
With the score knotted at eight late in the fourth quarter, seasoned junior goalie Joel Dennerley stopped two five-meter penalty shots, giving the offense a chance to take the lead. At the other end, Vavic received a pass from his teammate and roommate, freshman two-meter Jeremy Davie, and found the net with 35 seconds remaining to cement the victory, marking the team’s eighth consecutive SoCal tournament title.
“We were just running a play, and the guy played bad defense,” Vavic said, displaying a touch of modesty. “I got ahead of him a little and just capitalized. I had a clear shot …It just worked out for me. I guess it’s better to be lucky than good.”
But not all of Vavic’s teammates see such a play as simply a stroke of luck.
“He pulled around the player and had the confidence to take the shot with that little time remaining,” said Davie, who is second on the team with 28 goals. “It takes a lot of confidence to take that shot as a freshman.”
Vavic has not let up in the slightest, scoring a combined four goals in the past two games in losses to Stanford and Cal.
“He’s grown up with the coach and grown up with the system, which really helps,” Davie said. “He really goes hard, especially when it comes to attack. He has that fire in his eyes to get the goal.”
Still, Vavic insists he doesn’t feel any pressure. Not as the son of a coach who has won a combined eight national championships on the men’s and women’s circuit. Not as a freshman. Not even as the top scorer on the nation’s top-ranked team.
“There’s really not that much pressure on us — At least, I don’t really feel it,” Vavic said. “We were ranked just fourth at the beginning of the season, and nobody really expects us to win it at all this year.”
But that hasn’t halted any forward thinking, at least on behalf of Vavic, who despite his inexperience, remains confident that the Trojans can “three-peat”, despite the team’s youth.
“I know we’re good enough and have a great shot at winning it all,” he added. “Personally, I’m not too worried. I know, in the end, we’ll come together and we can handle it.”