There are few sure bets in the sporting world. Athletic seasons are inherently volatile, hinging on a few lucky bounces, the avoidance of injuries and key players’ abilities to perform in clutch situations.
Despite these variables, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who is betting against the USC men’s water polo team — not again, at least, after many pegged the Trojans for a middling finish in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation in 2010.
Instead, the Trojans won the MPSF Championship this past season en route to the program’s third consecutive NCAA title, downing California 12-10 in overtime.
The sobering reality for all other NCAA water polo programs is that there does not appear to be any end in sight to the Trojans’ streak of dominance.
Remarkably, the team will return virtually every starter next fall, including junior goalie Joel Dennerley, the MPSF Player of the Year, and two freshmen, driver Nikola Vavic and two-meter Jeremy Davie, who led the team in scoring.
Teams first became acquainted with Vavic and Davie in the NorCal Tournament, as they lit up the scoresheet with a multitude of goals, helping the Trojans defeat three top-five teams to secure their first No. 1 ranking of the season. Instilled with confidence, the team went across town to play at the SoCal Tournament two weeks later, winning the event for the eighth consecutive season, after narrowly edging out UCLA in another championship game.
“After we won the NorCal Tournament, it was still a little too early to read much into it,” said USC coach Jovan Vavic. “It was after we won the SoCal Tournament with a great game against UCLA in the finals that we became more confident and realized that we are pretty darn good.”
In a season of sustained success, the nadir was unquestionably the consecutive losses to Stanford and Cal directly following the SoCal Tournament. Star offensive players, including Vavic, Davie and junior driver Peter Kurzeka, hit the proverbial wall as the offense began to rely too heavily on the trio’s scoring prowess, straying from the diverse scoring attack that was so successful throughout the season. Even Dennerley’s otherworldly goaltending could no longer mask a sudden downturn in defensive tenacity and execution.
Whether such a young team could bounce back from losses to two powerhouses was anyone’s guess
“The turning point was our game against UCLA [at home],” said junior two-meter Matt Burton. “Both those losses really had us re-evaluate how badly we wanted to win and what we were willing to sacrifice to get there. I think everyone went home after that Cal loss, and decided that they were going to step up their defense from then on.”
The defense would improve sharply, as the Trojans trimmed their goals against average per game to lead the league in the statistic by the end of the season. Combined with a league-leading offense, their subsequent success came as no surprise.
The MPSF playoffs followed a familiar script: gutsy, narrow wins against Cal and Stanford, along with more comfortable wins against the rest of the MPSF and non-conference opponents.
Undoubtedly, the knowledge that the Trojans did not blow out many top-tier teams will inspire the team to work harder.
“There’s so much room for improvement,” Vavic said. “We are a team that had some ups and downs. We gave up way too many scoring spurts and blew several leads. We need to be focused for 32 minutes. Our two-meter defense also has to get better. We gave up too many natural goals from two-meters.”