Last season at this time, the No. 1 USC men’s water polo team was an unknown, brimming with talent but overloaded with untested youth, needing an opportunity to prove it had arrived as a serious national title competitor.
The 2010 NorCal tournament served as that platform. In three straight days, the Trojans (2-0) defeated then-No. 1 California, No. 2 UCLA and No. 5 UC Irvine en route to earning the tournament title.
Entering the NorCal tournament at the University of Pacific in Stockton, Calif., this weekend, there are no outstanding questions that need to be answered.
“We’re looking really good,” USC coach Jovan Vavic said. “There are certain games where our offense has looked excellent. It’s early in the season, where most of our guys are returning, so we are a really confident group right now.”
In the semifinal contest against Cal last season, the Trojans cruised into halftime with an 8-4 lead, but almost relinquished that advantage in the second half before surviving with a 12-11 victory, in large part because of current senior goalie Joel Dennerley’s exploits. The championship match against No. 2 UCLA was almost a repeat of the semifinal match, with current senior driver Peter Kurzeka burying his third and decisive goal of the game with seconds left to elevate the Trojans past the Bruins, 11-10.
Strategically, Vavic believes his team’s performance in odd-man situations this weekend will determine whether the Trojans can notch another NorCal tournament title.
“We’ve been focusing on extra-man and down-man situations, because usually when you go in a tough tournament, how you perform in those types of situations decides who wins,” Vavic said. “We have some things to work on in the next couple of days, but our work so far has been encouraging.”
Aside from the addition of freshman driver Konstantinos Genidounias, who debuted for the Trojans last week after competing in the FINA Men’s Junior World Championships, the Trojans will bring, for all intents and purposes, the same squad as last year.
“We’re really only taking up one new player to NorCal, and that’s [Genidounias],” Vavic said. “He has proven that he’s a really talented player, so I think he’s going to get a lot of playing time.”
USC will face West Valley Junior College — the No. 16 seed — in its first matchup Saturday at 8 a.m. A win will likely pit the Trojans against No. 6 UC Irvine at 2:40 p.m. From there, USC would advance to the semifinals to play either No. 5 Pacific or No. 4 Stanford.
“After those first two rounds, it’s going to be Stanford and Pacific,” Vavic said. “Pacific is a much-improved team. They’re good in every area. They have a strong two-meter man, they have a good lefty outside shooter, they have a good goalie, so I think the game between those two is going to be really close, especially since it’s at Pacific.”
If the Trojans advance past the semi-final round, No. 2 Cal or No. 3 UCLA likely awaits.
“Regardless of whom we see in the second or third round, it’s going to be challenging, and nothing is given when you’re playing so many good teams,” Vavic said.