The defending NCAA champion USC women’s water polo team will begin the 2014 season this Saturday as the No. 1 pick in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation and College Water Polo Assocation national preseason polls.
Last season, the Women of Troy took home their third NCAA title and simultaneously made history, defeating Stanford 10-9 in five overtimes, the longest match in women’s water polo championship game history. The team recognizes the challenge of defending its title.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” senior captain Madeline Rosenthal said. “If you’re ranked No. 1 it’s a target on your back. People see you as the team to take down. We’re ranked No. 1 because we won NCAA last year and we’re happy about that, but it’s in the past. Now we’re focusing on holding that spot.”
This year’s team is younger than most, with nine freshmen on the roster. Though training young athletes can be a challenge, the more seasoned players are excited to have a crop of new talent on the team.
“It’s great having fresh bodies in the pool. We have to push them strategically, but they have lots of energy, they’re fast, they’re pushing us in training, and they’re learning the system,” Rosenthal said. “Every year is a new year. This is my fourth year here, and looking at them is exciting because I can see all the potential that they have.”
For the new athletes, realizing that potential has taken hard work. Freshman driver Stephania Haralabidis described the challenge of adjusting to the team’s complex system.
“The most difficult thing has been learning the system, but I’m getting through it,” Haralabidis said. “It’s different [than high school]. I’ve never had so many practices in my entire life, but I’m really enjoying it. I love my teammates, and we’re making so much progress together.”
According to coaching staff, all that practice seems to be paying off as the team approaches the start of the season.
“Practices have been very competitive, very compelling. This team looks very eager to play,” said associate head coach Marko Pintaric. “We’re looking forward to our opening weekend, and seeing the girls in action for the first time. It’s a young team, and we’re looking forward to seeing what they bring to the table.”
The team will compete this weekend at the Triton Invitational Tournament in San Diego.
“A lot of good teams are going to be there, so we’re just preparing basically to run our system and to focus on ourselves and hopefully that will get us results,” said senior driver Kelly Mendoza. “Every other team has played multiple games so far, so we’re just really excited to finally get out there and show everyone what we can do.”
Under the instruction of head coach Jovan Vavic, a 12-time National Coach of the Year, the team feels well prepared to face its competition. This season will mark Vavic’s 20th year with USC’s women’s water polo program. Though his achievements speak for themselves, Vavic’s unique coaching style has proven highly effective in building a solid team.
“Jovan is, as the record proves, the best coach in the United States,” Pintaric said. “He’s a defensive coach, so his focus on the defense is a very important part of our equation, but he really addresses all of the issues the team could have.”
One of the issues the team faces each year is the prevention of injuries. Given the demanding nature of the sport and the minimal protective gear used during a game, the athletes take extra precautions to avoid injuring themselves.
“The most common injuries in water polo are shoulder and hip injuries, and knees, and you always have to watch out for concussions,” Mendoza said. “We do a lot of work in the weight room, like bands and stretches, in the hopes of preventing what we can, but our sport is so aggressive that sometimes you can’t help it.”
There is much more to the team than just training. Many of the athletes also attribute their success as a team to the amount of bonding they do outside of the pool.
“We do team activities and community service, stuff that the school wants us to do, but we also just hang out,” Mendoza said. “We’re all so close, we don’t have to worry about setting team bonding events because we’re constantly bonding outside of the water. It’s so much fun and we’re always learning from each other.”
Despite intense preparation and excellent coaching, the team had a turbulent preseason due to the loss of a fellow USC water polo player in freshman Jon Walters. Though Walters played for the men’s team, his passing shocked the tight-knit group of players.
“The morale has been how it can be, especially given Jon’s personality,” Pintaric said. “He touched every single player, every single member of our Trojan family. The girls … reacted very emotionally.”
In the upcoming season, the women’s team plans to put together a fundraising effort for the Walters family and the memorial scholarship fund created in Jon’s name.
“I think they’re reacting in a positive way. I don’t see anything lacking when they come to practice,” Pintaric said. “They’re still eager to play, they still compete, but they’re doing their part to help the family, to help remember Jon. It takes a lot of positive emotions to get through such a crisis as a team.”
Now stronger than ever, the Women of Troy are looking forward to the rest of the season and the intense competition they will face.
“We’ll be up against the usual suspects. The top nine teams usually don’t change,” Pintaric said. “Stanford is always exciting just because of the quality of play. The UCLA game, that’s going to be a great game. And Cal has recruited a very talented young class, so those games will be really exciting. It should be a lot of fun for us.”