Every once in a while, an athlete comes along who defies the limits of athletic achievement. An athlete who mesmerizes others in his sport and not only reaches greatness, but blows past it to become something more: legendary. Success comes so easily, it seems like the athlete’s reign of dominance will never end.
Until it does.
This is where the really interesting part begins: How do you replace such a legend?
When superstar goalie Joel Dennerley graduated after last season, the USC men’s water polo team was faced with this question.
Dennerley led the Trojans to the greatest run in NCAA water polo history: four consecutive NCAA championships, three All-America selections, two Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Player of the Year awards and one Peter J. Cutino Award as the nation’s top player — the first time a goalie has ever won the award.
Dennerley is USC’s all-time leader in saves and a national hero in his native Australia, where he was named the Player of the Year by Australia Water Polo Inc. and competed for the country in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
With accolades like that, USC coach Jovan Vavic was faced with one of the biggest challenges of his career in choosing Dennerley’s successor.
But after working through summer camp and early season games, it turns out that the best way to replace a legend might be by committee.
During last weekend’s NorCal tournament, redshirt sophomore goalie Ely Bonilla, 20, and junior goalie James Clark, 21, each played two games.
Both played well, as evidenced by the team’s last two wins of the tournament: a 10-9 victory over No. 4 Stanford with Bonilla playing, and a 7-6 win over No. 2 UCLA in the championship with Clark in the cage.
“We both had a good tournament this weekend,” Bonilla said. “You’re always happy with the wins.”
Vavic was also pleased with the efforts of the young goalies.
“Our goalies were excellent,” he said. “We are fortunate that we can really rely on them extensively.”
So far, everything is at peace. The two compete with each other each day for playing time, but Vavic maintains he isn’t in a hurry to deviate from the two-goalie system.
Each goalie has the pedigree to be a star, Vavic insists. In fact, the Trojans’ 18-year coach believes that his duo might be even more physically gifted than Dennerley.
“They are both long and very quick, and I think that is their biggest strength,” Vavic said of Bonilla and Clark. “They have very strong legs, and I think both of them have stronger legs than [Dennerley]. That allows them to get up higher out of the water and stay up for a longer period of time.”
In addition to their physical strengths, Bonilla and Clark have another thing in common: both have been Dennerley’s back-up.
Bonilla spent two years on the bench for USC, playing sparingly in games, waiting for the opportunity to make a real impact on the team.
And Clark, though only in his first year at USC, is no stranger to backing up the all-time great: he was Dennerley’s backup on the Australian national team this past summer in London.
While each player was an understudy to Dennerley, both took advantage of the opportunity to work alongside one of the world’s best goalies.
“The biggest thing I’ve gathered from [Dennerley] is his dedication and time he puts into the sport,” Clark said. “He shows that, along with the ability, it also takes a lot of time and effort to become not just a good player but a great player.”
Bonilla also developed a great respect for Dennerley’s work ethic and is now fully aware of the task that faces him.
“I’ve got some big shoes to fill,” Bonilla said. “I’ve learned a lot from [Dennerley] the past two years, a lot of preparation techniques. Now I’m just trying to use everything I’ve learned from him and the coaches to play to the best of my abilities.”
Vavic understands that despite his best efforts, Bonilla and Clark are going to face endless comparisons to the Trojan great.
But he praises the two for their patience and insists they are ready to play large roles in this season’s success, likening their situation to one several USC quarterbacks have faced in the past.
“[Bonilla] is in his third year, so he has been really patient in waiting for his opportunity,” Vavic said. “James Clark is a new player for us, so for him this is new territory. If you compare our team with our football team, they had [Carson] Palmer, [Matt] Leinart. They had these great quarterbacks who waited for their opportunity, and we are no different.”
For now, the duo is perfectly content with sharing the role, and Vavic is confident that their time on the bench will pay off.
“We have great players who patiently wait for their opportunity and now they are ready to shine,” Vavic said.