The “Drive for Five” has reached its final lap for the No. 1 USC men’s water polo team. Already the first men’s squad to win four consecutive NCAA titles in the pool, the Trojans only need two wins at this weekend’s NCAA Championships to extend the dynasty to five in a row.
The Trojans (27-0) are the top seed and will take on No. 10 Air Force (19-10) in a semifinal matchup Saturday, and provided they win they will take on the winner of the No. 2 UCLA (27-4) and No. 11 St. Francis Brooklyn (16-8) in the championship match.
All matches will be played at USC’s McDonald’s Stadium, with the championship match set for 3:12 p.m. on Sunday on the Pac-12 Networks.
USC won the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament last weekend to earn an automatic berth in the tournament, defeating California 9-5 in the title match. Ranked first in the preseason polls, the Trojans have run the gauntlet, outscoring opponents by an average of 8.6 goals per match and leading the country in most goals scored and least goals allowed per match.
The squad is two wins away from the second undefeated season in program history, but won’t be caught thinking ahead.
“We haven’t done anything yet,” said junior driver Nikola Vavic, who leads the Trojans with 79 goals on the season and is a favorite for National Player of the Year. “This weekend is where all your work finally pays off, but it’s all business until Sunday. [We have] to finish off strong.”
Vavic has teamed with sophomore driver Kostas Genidounias this season to form arguably the nation’s most lethal scoring duo. Genidounias has 62 goals of his own this year, double his total from 2011, and gives the Trojans a 1-2 punch to throw at any opponent.
The Trojans alternated between sophomore Ely Bonilla and junior James Clark in goal all season, but Clark, who played for the Australian National Team at the London Games, has received the nod in all of the Trojans’ match-ups against top squads down the stretch and will start at goalie during the NCAAs.
“Experience,” USC coach Jovan Vavic said about why Clark earned the starting nod. “He’s played in more games, especially playing well in the Olympics against Hungary, one of the best teams in the world.”
The Trojans’ pair of senior captains, Michael Rosenthal and two-meter Matt Burton, anchor the Trojan defense, while three juniors in two-meter Jeremy Davie, driver Stephen Siri and utility Mace Rapsey are among the plethora of other weapons that form USC’s biggest strength: its depth.
“We have great match-ups for everyone on any other team,” Nikola Vavic said. “We go two, three positions deep so we can match up with anyone in the country.”
USC and Air Force haven’t faced off in the pool since 2008, when the Trojans crushed the Falcons 19-1. The Falcons won the Western Water Polo Association title to earn their first NCAA appearance since 1994, and have won 10 of their last 11 matches.
“They’re always in really good shape,” Rosenthal said. “They’re going to counter hard and play a really tough game.”
Air Force comes in on a roll but should have a difficult time knocking off the top-ranked Trojans, who are 15-0 all-time against the Falcons. In their five matches against MPSF squads this season, the Falcons went 0-5, being outscored by an average of 11.2 goals.
UCLA is the heavy favorite in the other semifinal match. Barring a monumental upset, a rematch of the 2011 title match is in the works for Sunday. The Trojans defeated the Bruins 7-4 last year, and have defeated their crosstown foes twice this season, including a 10-9 thriller two weeks ago that clinched USC’s regular season MPSF title.
The Trojans’ record might be perfect, but the team’s performance in the pool is not.
“Our defense has been on and off,” Rosenthal said. “But when we’re on, everyone is communicating really well and we know that with our personnel, we can take out their better players, forcing other guys to beat us.”
Their coach agreed that the team has had its ups and downs.
“I’m surprised we’re undefeated, because of injuries,” Jovan Vavic said. Davie missed six weeks midseason and senior driver Tobias Preuss has also missed significant time. “Other guys have stepped up though, and now we’re better because of that [experience],” added the elder Vavic.
The Trojans have made some slight changes in the line-up from the MPSFs, subbing in a pair of drivers in senior Andrew Reego and sophomore Marc Vonderweidt in place of a pair of two-meters, sophomores Mac Carden and Max Hurst-Mendoza.
“UCLA is a little smaller and quicker than Stanford and other MPSF squads, so we wanted to add some players with excellent speed,” Jovan Vavic said.
For Rosenthal, Burton and Reego, these two games will be their last as Trojans, and nothing would be sweeter than leaving USC with a ring on every finger.
“It’d really be the cherry on top,” Rosenthal said. “My career here has been incredible, almost perfect, and to finish it off with a perfect season and a national championship in front of everyone at ‘SC who’s been there along with us the whole way would be really special.”
For all the excitement and anticipation that comes with a championship on the line, expectations for this weekend are simple for Rosenthal: “We’re going to come out strong and we’re going to beat the Bruins.”