Make it three NorCal tournament titles in a row for the No. 1 USC men’s water polo team.
After defeating Stanford in a 10-9 overtime thriller in the semifinals, the undefeated Trojans defeated UCLA 7-6 in the title match on Sunday, holding off a late, frenetic push from the Bruins to cap a successful weekend in the Bay.
Junior driver Nikola Vavic led the Trojans with 12 goals during the tournament, providing a consistent scoring threat across the weekend’s four matches. Also at the driver position, sophomore Kostas Genidounias scored five goals during the weekend and senior driver Michael Rosenthal added four.
In the final, the Trojans jumped out to a 3-0 lead after the first quarter and took a 5-2 lead into halftime. Though the score indicated otherwise, the game was never really in doubt, with UCLA only scoring in the final seconds of the match to cut the deficit to one goal.
“We came out, executed our game plan, took an early lead, and that was that,” junior driver Stephen Siri said.
USC’s defense limited UCLA — last year’s national runner-up to the Trojans — to just six goals. UCLA’s top scorers weren’t able to get into a rhythm against the Trojans’ defense, as no Bruin scored multiple goals in the match. In his second start as a Trojan, junior goalie James Clark, a member of Australia’s Olympic team in London, made 11 saves.
After sophomore goalie Ely Bonilla played in the semifinal match, Jovan Vavic made the switch to Clark for the title match, although Jovan Vavic insisted not to read too much into the decision.
“Clark’s more communicative in goal, that’s one of his big strengths,” Siri said.
Nikola Vavic, the Trojans’ leading scorer so far in 2012 by a wide margin, scored four of the seven goals in the match to lead all scorers.
Though Nikola Vavic paced the Trojans all weekend, perhaps the biggest goal of the tournament came on a backhand strike from junior two-meter Jeremy Davie that gave the Trojans a narrow victory over the fourth-ranked Cardinal.
After dispatching Pomona-Pitzer 22-1 and No. 8 Pepperdine 9-4 in the first two rounds, the Trojans headed into the semifinal matchup against Stanford on Saturday expecting their greatest challenge of the season.
The Cardinal did not disappoint.
The Trojans started slow offensively, scoring just three goals in the first half as the Cardinal led 4-3 at the break.
“We had a good first half defensively,” Siri said. “But we had small communication errors, and these led to missed opportunities on the offense.”
The Cardinal scored first in the second half to take a 5-3 lead, USC’s biggest deficit of the season to date. The Trojans scored three straight goals to take a 6-5 lead, and the teams traded goals throughout the fourth quarter.
After scoring nine goals in the first three quarters, the squads combined for nine in the fourth quarter alone.
The Trojans almost won the match in regulation time, but Stanford’s B.J. Churnside scooped up the ball and fired in the equalizer with three seconds left in regulation.
Overcoming the frustration of the Cardinal’s last-second score, the Trojans held on defensively for the first half of overtime, as neither team scored.
Nineteen seconds into the second half of overtime, Davie found open space and powered the ball into the net to give the Trojans a 10-9 lead.
After that, the goal was “to not let the other team breathe,” Siri explained.
The Trojan defense clamped down on the Cardinal, and less than three minutes later their trip to the championship match was ensured.