The No. 1 USC men’s water polo team racked up five more victories over the weekend en route to its ninth SoCal tournament championship in 10 years, defeating UC Santa Barbara 14-5 in the championship game. The four-game tournament sweep came after a 22-5 victory over Princeton on Friday.
“We looked very good,” USC coach Jovan Vavic said. “Our defense was very consistent each game, and offensively we did a better job at finishing our high percentage opportunities. I was very pleased with how we played.”
The Trojans’ tournament crown redeeems them from last year’s disappointing showing, in which the team lost two games in a row to place fourth.
“Last year was disappointing,” junior two-meter Jeremy Davie said. “We used that to motivate us for this year. We didn’t want to have that result again. We watched the tape from last year, and we were very well-prepared for this weekend.”
The star of the tournament was junior driver Nikola Vavic, who scored 16 goals over the five-game weekend, including a career-high six in the finals victory.
“Nikola so far has had a very good year,” Jovan Vavic said. “He’s not only scoring, which he has always been able to do, but he is also making assists and making his teammates better.”
The team got off to a hot start Friday, dismantling Princeton at the outset of the game and displaying excellent focus. With the tough task of playing five games in three days, team captains stressed the importance of concentrating on the task at hand — rather than the long slate of games — to remain sharp.
“We address complacency whenever we see it,” senior driver Andrew Reego said. “We get on guys, we’ll meet as a team to assess why we’re playing or practicing poorly and we’ll get back on track.”
That drive was evident this weekend, as USC wasted no time jumping ahead in its opening round game against St. Francis. Vavic led the way with four goals while Davie chipped in three to provide sophomore goalie Ely Bonilla all the cushion he needed as the team won 15-4.
In the second-round matchup, USC faced fellow Mountain Pacific Sports Federation foe No. 8 Pacific. The Tigers put up more of a fight, but the Trojans were able to tame them with three goals from sophomore driver Kostas Genidounias, winning by a score of 9-4.
On Sunday, USC was able to do what it could not in last year’s tournament: avoid the crushing upset. This proved to be a challenge for other highly ranked teams in the field, however, as both No. 4 Cal and No. 2 UCLA tripped up on their way to the championship game. As a result, USC played No. 5 UC Irvine in the semifinals, winning by a score of 10-5.
After an evenly played first quarter, the Trojans scored five unanswered goals in the second and third periods to distance themselves from the Anteaters. Once again, Vavic and Genidounias led the team’s scoring, tallying three goals apiece. Bonilla and junior goalie James Clark split time in the cage and made 12 saves total — eight for Bonilla and four for Clark.
“Both of our goalies are excellent,” Jovan Vavic said. “They did a great job for us. We improved our team defense. Our players were more aware, they communicated better. I was very pleased with our younger players. They played significant minutes, and they played well.”
In the championship game, USC took on host No. 6 UC Santa Barbara after the Gauchos upset No. 2 UCLA.
UCSB was unable to capitalize on its home-court advantage, as the Trojans raced ahead of the Gauchos, with Nikola Vavic scoring the first three goals of the game. After UCSB cut the lead to 4-2 in the first quarter, USC went on a scoring run with goals by Genidounias and junior two-meter Connor Virjee to push the lead to 9-3 at halftime.
The onslaught would continue in the second half, as Clark and the Trojans defense shut out UCSB in the third quarter to give the team an 11-3 lead heading into the fourth. With the result secured for all intents and purposes, the two sides alternated goals to push the final score to 14-5.
“[Nikola Vavic and Genidounias] are both very talented offensively,” Jovan Vavic said. “They are difficult to defend because they have multiple weapons. Not only are they scoring, but they actually lead the team in assists. They do a great job of setting other people up as well.”
The successful weekend boosts the Trojans to 14-0 on the season and leaves them in top form. Though the team is pleased with its results to date, Jovan Vavic stressed that his players are looking forward to the next challenge.
“One of the keys in having a successful season is not getting too high or too low,” Jovan Vavic said. “We have good leadership on our team. Our guys know that this is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Our players are mature enough to understand this.”
The team will have the week off before heading north to face conference rival No. 3 Stanford on Saturday, providing USC with yet another test against a national power.
“Three years ago, we went to Stanford and did not play well,” Jovan Vavic said. “They had a large crowd, we had a tough time scoring and they beat us. We know how difficult that place is to play, and we’re going to be ready.”