The USC men’s water polo team enters the 2013 season the way they ended the last, as the No. 1 team in the nation, at least according to the preseason Collegiate Water Polo Association poll. After winning their fifth consecutive NCAA championship last year with a dramatic 11-10 win over crosstown rival UCLA to cap off a perfect 29-0 record, the Trojans have renewed expectations of a national title under 12-time National Coach of the Year Jovan Vavic.
With the opening matches right around the corner, Vavic can’t wait to begin the quest for a sixth consecutive championship with yet another loaded team at his disposal.
“I feel pretty good about our team since we have a strong recruiting class and a strong group of seniors with the majority of our starting unity coming back,” Vavic said. “We also have a good amount of experience now playing against top-notch international competition.”
The program, which hasn’t lost a match since 2011, kicks off its season at the UCSD Triton Invitational this weekend in La Jolla, Calif. USC will be playing six matches over the course of two days and will be facing some premier opponents.
Five of their first six matches come against teams that are currently ranked or were ranked in last year’s NCAA Division I polls.
“We are going to take no one lightly and everyone’s going to be after us so we are just going to have to take it game by game,” senior utility player Mace Rapsey said. “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. [We’ll] stay focused and see what happens.”
After carrying such a large target on their back in previous years, the nation’s other top water polo teams won’t have to wait long to get a shot at dethroning the defending champions. The Trojans will have two early-season tests as they take on UCLA and California, who were second and fourth, respectively, in the preseason CWPA poll. Stanford, another Mountain Pacific Sports Federation conference foe, is currently third in the rankings.
Though both of these matches are being played as scrimmages, they will be great indicators of whether a top-ranked team will be able to even compete with USC, which brings back five All-Americans and four of its five top scorers from last year. Reigning National Player of the Year Nikola Vavic scored 83 goals last year and stands just 48 goals away from the USC’s all-time record.
UCLA and Cal finished second and third, respectively, in the NCAA Division I rankings at the end of the 2012 campaign.
UCLA returns four starters, led by all-conference honoree Paul Reynolds, who ranked third in goals scored (41) for the Bruins last season.
California senior Collin Smith, one of the Bears’ five returning All-Americans, led his team with 61 goals and 31 assists.
Though UCLA and Cal are the notable matches of the weekend, the Trojans will also take on Cal Baptist and Loyola Marymount on Saturday, followed by Air Force and Redlands on Sunday.
With six games jam-packed into 29 hours, Vavic expects many underclassmen to get some playing time.
“At this point, this team is experienced, but we need some younger players who haven’t played a major role these last few years to step up,” Vavic said.
Vavic’s words apply to freshman Jon Walters, who led Mater Dei High School to two CIF titles and will have to prove he’s ready for the collegiate game this weekend.
“I’m spending a lot of time learning our system and our plays, and I’m just going to continue to work hard in order to play a role on this team somehow,” Walters said.
Nagging injuries commonly derail a team’s championship aspirations. Fortunately for USC, there are no injuries to worry about right now.
“Everyone is good to go,” Vavic said of the team’s health.
The Trojans will play their first game of the Triton Invitational and of the season against Cal Baptist on Saturday at 1 p.m. and conclude the weekend with the scrimmage against the Bruins at 6 p.m. on Sunday.
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