During the course of their season, the Trojans’ focus has never wandered beyond their immediate opponent. Now that only two additional victories will crown the No. 1 USC men’s water polo team (26-2) NCAA champions for the third consecutive year, however, it is almost surreal to reflect on how far this team has come and how little it has left to prove.
The Trojans will commence their quest to three-peat this weekend at the NCAA tournament hosted by California. In the semifinal round, the Trojans will face a relative unknown No. 4 St. Francis (24-3) on Saturday at 1 p.m. If the tournament unfolds as expected, the Trojans will face No. 2 Cal (23-3), in the championship game the following day at 3 p.m. To make this titanic clash a reality, however, Cal must first handle No. 3 Loyola Marymount (19-8).
The peculiar reality of the NCAA tournament is that, on its face, it does not invite the best teams in the country, almost all of which are members of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation. Since the Trojans downed the formidable Cardinal — arguably their most difficult matchup this season — in the MPSF championship game, the NCAA could not justify giving Stanford the one at-large berth in lieu of Cal, which had a better record and finished first in the MPSF regular season standings. Similarly, there was no space for a potent UCLA squad that finished third in the standings. With those two behemoths looming next year, Cal appears to be the only substantial obstacle remaining between the Trojans and defending their title.
“The MPSF tournament is, by far, the most difficult tournament to win. You’re supposed to win three hard games, and many times your first game [in the NCAA tournament] is against a lower-ranked opponent than even your first opponent in the MPSF tournament,” USC coach Jovan Vavic said.
True to form, however, Vavic refused to discuss a game plan for Cal, insisting that the team’s sole focus is St. Francis and containing its potent offense.
“St. Francis has a lot of big, athletic players from Serbia and Croatia, and they are very good offensively, with a strong goalie,” Vavic said. “We are not preparing for Cal right now. We don’t even know if Cal is going to make it to the finals. LMU is a tough team. You cannot discount LMU.”
At the beginning of the season, the program was ostensibly in rebuilding mode, trying to replenish a roster that had lost several standout senior contributors. The thought now seems laughable. Certainly, the preseason pundits who picked the Trojans to finish fourth in their own conference severely underestimated Vavic’s ability to integrate a bevy of new freshmen talent into his proven system. In fact, on Tuesday Vavic earned his combined ninth MPSF Coach of the Year honor between coaching both the USC men’s and women’s water polo teams.
Eager to dispel any chances of a letdown, Vavic has drilled into his team that this is no time to ease up. The St. Francis team knows that an upset would instantly become the signature win in its program’s history. Cal and LMU are both talented teams with which the Trojans are well-acquainted. Hopefully, the team’s character and determination will continue to shine through in critical games.
“We’ve grown together from all the way back this spring,” junior driver Peter Kurzeka — selected to the 2010 All-MPSF first team — said. “Knowing that we were losing so much talent, we knew we needed to work hard all the way through. The team has bonded and everyone has bought in.”