The four-time reigning NCAA champion USC men’s water polo team has faced these questions before.
Concerns will surface about avoiding the onset of complacency, replacing lost contributors and surviving the grind of playing in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation to defend its national championship.
Previously given three such opportunities, USC answered all questions and defended its crown, winning an unprecedented fourth consecutive national championship last season.
“[Combating complacency] is a tough thing to do,” said USC coach Jovan Vavic. “It’s really in the hands of our players. They have to really be willing to do all the work again, and I feel we have done a good job in that area.”
Less than a month away from its opening match at the UCLA Invitational, USC must first determine who will fill the void left by the graduation of superstar goalie Joel Dennerley, winner of the 2011-12 Peter J. Cutino Award as the nation’s top collegiate water polo player, Dennerley is now the starting goalie for the Australian national team.
The top two candidates to replace Dennerley are redshirt sophomore Ely Bonilla and incoming freshman James Clark. Bonilla appeared in six games last season, allowing nine goals and registering 18 saves. But Clark, Dennerley’s teammate and backup on the Australian national team, is expected to challenge Bonilla for the starting job.
Despite Clark’s impressive international resume, Vavic does not discount the importance of Bonilla’s experience at USC.
“[Bonilla] has played some very good games,” Vavic said. “He’s played excellent [this offseason].”
Whoever wins the job will not bear the burden of replicating Dennerley’s production alone, as the team’s defense is expected to be just as stout even without the luxury of a two-time MPSF Player of the Year in the net.
“[Dennerley] was a huge anchor for our defense,” said junior two-meter Jeremy Davie. “We have to work hard on getting our defense a lot more solid so we can prepare for teams and stop them the way we have the last few years.”
Though the main focus on the defensive side is finding a new goalie, the offensive side retains much of the prolific attacking unit integral to last season’s success. Despite losing last season’s top goal-scorer in driver Peter Kurzeka, USC returns six of its top seven scorers from a year ago.
One of USC’s primary offensive catalysts is All-American junior driver Nikola Vavic, who tallied 41 goals last season, including a team-leading five in the NCAA Tournament.
“This team is confident,” Vavic said. “We just have to continue to work hard, and I think we’ve done a good job of that this summer.”
Though most of the offseason questions revolve around the loss of two star players, the return of another, redshirt senior two-meter Matt Burton, has the team excited. Burton, a team captain, ranked third on the team two years ago with 33 goals scored, earning All-American third-team and NCAA All-Tournament second-team selections. He scored three goals in USC’s first two games last season before being sidelined for the remainder of the year with an elbow injury.
“The recovery is good,” Burton said. “My elbow is fine. It’s nice to be back in the pool because being injured is pretty rough.”
The veteran’s return will provide the young team — only 10 of the 41 players on the roster are upperclassmen — with seasoned leadership.
“[Burton’s return] is a huge plus for our team. He’s a great leader for us,” Vavic said. “He is one of our best defenders and can play the two-meter. Having him for his fifth year is going to be very valuable.”
Of the 10 upperclassmen, four are fifth-year seniors: Burton, drivers Michael Rosenthal and Andrew Reego and two-meter Brian Boswell. The group is hoping to complete a perfect college career with a fifth championship in five years.
“It’s a bit surreal,” Burton said. “If you would have asked me when I came here out of high school if I would have won [even] one championship, I would have been stoked. Going for a fifth ring, that’s perfection. I’ve been more motivated for this one than I have been for the last four.”
With each team in the MPSF ranked in the top nine of the final NCAA national rankings, the road to a fifth title will not be easy.
But given USC’s returning talent and determined mindset, the opportunity is there for the team to continue its historic run.