The three-time defending national champion No. 1 USC men’s water polo team is approaching unprecedented territory.
California remains the only other NCAA Division I men’s water polo program to have ever won three consecutive national championships, a feat it accomplished twice.
No team has ever won four in a row.
With the Trojans returning every starter from their 2010 title team — a team that outscored its opponents 382-183, begs the question: Can anyone derail the Trojans’ recent string of success?
“The team is very experienced now, as we are returning our top players from last year,” USC coach Jovan Vavic said. “There is great competition for every position. We are three-deep, even four-deep, at almost every position”
The Trojans will test that depth this weekend, as they jump into the pool Sunday for their first contests of the regular season, facing Fresno Pacific and UC Irvine as part of the UCI Invitational.
USC does not have many question marks because, by Vavic’s count, it returns its top 13 players from this past season, including their three leading scorers in sophomore two-meter Jeremy Davie, junior driver Peter Kurzeka and sophomore driver Nikola Vavic, and the reigning Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Player of the Year senior goalie Joel Dennerley.
“Our starters are back, very healthy and hungry,” Vavic said. “We also have quite a few new players and guys who have redshirted. So the competition for playing time has been fierce.”
No starting spot is guaranteed, at least according to Vavic, a e coach who has won a combined nine MPSF Coach of the Year awards between the men and women’s circuits.
Vavic said redshirt freshman goalie Ely Bonilla, who was named MVP of the first annual 21-and-under junior Olympics, has battled Dennerly for playing time thus far through training camp.
“Having Bonilla is a huge plus for us,” Vavic said. “Having another goalie is going to push [Dennerley] a little bit.”
With so much roster depth, Vavic notes the Trojans will rotate many players in and out of the lineup to keep starters fresh.
“Some of the freshmen will have a chance to play right away,” Vavic said. “[Freshman driver] Mark Vonderweidt already has shown some signs of greatness. [Freshman driver Konstantinos Genidounias], a kid from Greece, has a chance to help immediately. He was the MVP of the 18-and-under European Water Polo Championship last year, but he’s not going to join until the end of the [Junior World Championships] in September.”
Last season, as USC sets its eyes on a third consecutive title, Vavic informed his team, which featured no seniors at the time, what it would take to win another national championship, reiterating on several occasions the team could not let complacency set in.
Vavic does not anticipate such problems to settle in.
“Complacency is definitely the biggest obstacle,” Vavic said. “There are always some players that are happy they won a championship, or two, or three. You have to watch out for those, but we do have a very competitive young group of players.”
Those leaders, Dennerley and Kurzeka, as well as junior two-meter Brian Boswell, junior driver Michael Rosenthal and senior two-meter Matt Burton, have all been key contributers in USC’s run of dominance. The group, all part of the same recruiting class, has never known a finish to the season that did not involve pushing coach Vavic into a pool following an NCAA championship win.
Though most teams will recognize the Trojans as the preseason favorite, most, if not all, of the upper-echelon teams can point to minor mistakes they made against USC — situations that altered the outcomes of close games — as the reason why they are not the NCAA champions.
California, Stanford and UCLA will remain formidable, and an upstart Pacific team could also make noise before the season ends. In a league of such parity, there is no time to bask in past victories.
“We’ve been training very hard, and I’m really pleased with our physical fitness coming back from the break,” Vavic said. “This is probably the fittest team we’ve had returning from the break. A lot of that has to do with our leadership and our seniors setting the tone.”