Beginning the season with much attention and great anticipation, the No. 1 USC men’s water polo team has surpassed all expectations — at least thus far.
The Trojans (5-0) remain undefeated even after last weekend’s NorCal tournament in Stockton, Calif., which pitted them against some of the toughest teams in the country.
USC upended No. 4 Stanford, No. 6 UC Irvine and No. 3 UCLA en route to becoming two-time defending champions of the prestigious early-season tournament.
“We played all of our players that traveled, which was 19 players,” USC coach Jovan Vavic said. “And every single player contributed in a positive way. It was really a team-orientated tournament. We didn’t have any major lapses. Overall, I was very impressed.”
On Sunday night, USC broke open an early 2-2 deadlock in the first quarter against UCLA with three consecutive goals — two from freshman driver Kosta Genidounias and one from sophomore driver Nikola Vavic.
By halftime, after yet another Genidounias goal, the score was 6-4 in favor of the Trojans.
Armed with a 10-7 lead with more than three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, USC managed to stave off a late UCLA surge to secure the 10-8 victory and repeat as champions.
“This really was a complete team effort,” Vavic said. “[Redshirt junior two-meter Brian] Boswell played really well. There were a lot of people who needed to step in and play because [senior two-meter] Matt Burton, our best defender, did not play in this tournament. The players that really gave us a boost when he didn’t play were [sophomore two-meter] Connor Virjee and [redshirt freshman two-meter] Jack Plaga.”
In the process, senior goalie Joel Dennerley notched 19 saves against UCLA to break USC’s all-time record of 692 saves.
“Joel broke our record in blocks and he was absolutely on fire,” Vavic said. “He really stepped up when we needed him.”
Against No. 4 Stanford in the semifinals earlier Sunday afternoon, USC jumped out to a commanding 4-0 lead after the first quarter and ballooned the lead to 10-3 at halftime, effectively punching its ticket to the final match before the second half began.
The weekend started with a Friday morning match against West Valley Junior College, a team added to the NorCal Tournament at the last moment to reach a complete 16-team field.
West Valley only trailed 4-2 at the end of the first quarter, but could not muster a game plan to neutralize the Trojans, as USC proceeded to outscore West Valley 16-1 over the remainder of the match for a final victory of 20-3.
On Saturday, USC endured a sluggish start against No. 6 UC Irvine, with both teams knotted at 2-2 at halftime.
Once play resumed, however, the Trojans, on the strength of nine different scorers, exploded for nine goals in the second half while only surrendering two, delivering an 11-4 victory.
Despite the well-rounded effort throughout the tournament, one position player stood out to Vavic.
Genidounias tallied 12 goals in four games, including five in the final match against UCLA.
“[His performance] was definitely a surprise,” Vavic said. “I knew he was an excellent player, but I have many good players play for us and not perform like this in the very first tournament.”
Though USC comes away with another tournament title, the coaching staff insists its focus is now on the next match and the team must be prepared for every team’s best shot.
“We try to focus on the game, and we have Irvine coming up this Saturday,” Vavic said. “We knew at the beginning of the season that we would be a team to beat. It’s not a secret that we are the favorite to win at the NCAAs. We know what our goal is, and we are trying to do something that has never been done. It’s not going to be easy but we are enjoying this road.”
Maheen Sahoo contributed to this story.