Following a heartbreaking 10-9 overtime loss against their crosstown rivals from UCLA to conclude the regular season, the USC men’s water polo team entered the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation conference tournament in the unfamiliar role of reeling underdog.
“Reeling” might seem like a dramatic exaggeration for a team that has just four losses on the year and is ranked in the top five. But the five-time national champions are not accustomed to losing big games, which they have done multiple times this season in defeats to Pacific, Stanford and UCLA.
Nevertheless, the squad made up for all of that and regained its familiar favorite status with a powerful run through the MPSF tournament, clinching the conference title on Sunday with a vigorous 10-8 win over rival Stanford.
USC (26-4) entered the game ranked fourth nationally while Stanford (21-5) possessed the No. 2 position. The Trojans had upended top-ranked Pacific in the semifinals with a dominant 18-13 win, but still needed one more win to assure themselves of a spot in the six-team NCAA tournament.
USC did just that, avenging its 17-16 overtime loss suffered at the hands of the Cardinal a few weeks ago at home.
Senior driver Nikola Vavic led the charge in his final MPSF tournament game with two goals, enabling USC’s offense to spread the scoring wealth among eight different players. Freshman two-meter Jon Walters was the only other player to net multiple goals for the Trojans.
“You can’t just focus on one player and hope to stop us,” head coach Jovan Vavic said of his squad.
After falling behind quickly 1-0, the Trojans struck back with a goal of their own from senior two-meter Jeremy Davie before adding on two more to take a 3-1 lead at the end of the first period.
The Trojans utilized some excellent cage play from senior goalie James Clark, who notched 16 saves, before Vavic’s second goal of the match let USC take a 6-3 lead into halftime.
Stanford came out of the half strong and cut the deficit to two goals, but USC refused to wilt. The Trojans responded with a three-goal surge to go up 9-4 before the third period ended, letting Clark finish the job en route to yet another MPSF championship.
The conference title turned out to greatly benefit the Trojans in terms of seeding for the NCAA Tournament — USC was announced on Monday as the No. 1 overall seed, putting them in prime position for a run at an unprecedented sixth straight national championship.
The Trojans will face either No. 4 seed UC San Diego (14-13) or No. 5 seed St. Francis College Brooklyn (22-10) in the semifinals.
No. 2 Pacific is the other squad to receive a bye into the semifinals, and will face the winner of the matchup pitting No. 3 Stanford against No. 6-seeded Whittier College.
The pressure will surely mount for USC next week at the NCAAs, but the high-pressure environment is something every player and coach signed up for.
“Being a Trojan means from the start that the other team is out of its game already,” Davie said.
That confident attitude will be extremely important if the Trojans are to capture that elusive sixth ring, as teams will be licking their fingers at the chance to end mighty USC’s historic run and send them home empty-handed.
The play-in game to determine USC’s first opponent will take place on Thursday, and the semifinals and championship match will be played on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, in Palo Alto, Calif.