The lone skid mark for the No. 2 USC men’s water polo team (26-2, 6-2) this season came in mid-October when the Trojans stumbled in consecutive weeks on the road at Stanford and at home against California. In the words of USC coach Jovan Vavic, complacency had started to set in.
“Our desire wasn’t where it needed to be,” said the Trojans’ 16th year head coach.
With a guaranteed trip to the NCAA tournament on the line Sunday during the finals of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament, the Trojans emerged 8-7 winners over the Stanford Cardinal in triple overtime.
“Our desire was much greater this time,” Vavic said. “I told the guys that I didn’t do the best job in preparing them for that Stanford game earlier in the year, and in the week leading into this conference tournament, we rested our guys more.”
It paid off for the Trojans, as the youthful bunch was forced to play in three games in three days, including Sunday’s thriller which went far past regulation.
“We didn’t give them morning practices; the practices were shorter,” Vavic said. “We did some stuff that was relaxing for the guys. It was just a much wider work schedule.”
In turn, the Trojans looked fresh in the final moments of a triple-overtime title match with a Cardinal team that had given them trouble in the past. With 1:18 remaining in the fourth quarter, junior two-meter Matt Burton seized an opportunity, putting a five-meter penalty shot past Stanford goalie Brian Pingree to knot the score at five apiece, forcing extra time.
However, initially neither team could gain an upper hand in overtime, forcing sudden death, when freshman driver Nikola Vavic recorded yet another timely game-winner, securing the win, MPSF title and automatic NCAA tournament berth.
“He’s really playing at a high level and some significant minutes,” Vavic said when asked about his son, who finished with six goals in the three-day tournament. “He’s really stepped up in these games.”
But the game that produced a close, contended finish, didn’t start that way.
Despite playing in Stanford’s home pool, the Trojans embarked on a strong run early in the first frame, eventually building a 3-1 lead before the Cardinals were eventually able to crawl back and take a one-goal lead of its own at 5-4.
“Stanford is a very tough defensive team,” Vavic said. “They scouted us really well. They knew our plan. They had good matchups and they are physical, big and strong. They don’t give up. They really are a much better team than their record shows. They made it tough for us.”
But the Trojans, who had already easily disposed of UC Santa Barbara and UCLA 10-5 and 10-2 in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively, leaned heavily on their anchor, junior goalie Joel Dennerley when it counted the most in overtime.
“In the game against Stanford, Joel was tremendous,” Vavic said. “It was just really unbelievable. He probably had his best game of the season.”
Dennerley, who finished with 12 saves, was all the more important in overtime. In the first frame of sudden death, the Australian native blocked a shot taken from point-blank range with 54 seconds remaining, which would have given Stanford the win.
Instead, the Trojans, not the Cardinals, have begun preparation for this weekend’s NCAA tournament, scheduled to take place in Berkeley, Calif.
USC, the No. 1 seed, is scheduled to face No. 4-seeded St. Francis at 1 p.m. on Saturday, where a win would put them in the tournament finals for a sixth consecutive, a NCAA record.
“It’s a team loaded with foreign talent,” Vavic said. “They have some very good players, and they can be dangerous. But I do feel we’re in a good position to defend a title.”