With more than half of the squad made up of freshmen, the reigning NCAA champion USC men’s water polo team will enter the 2014 season revamped and reloaded in pursuit of its seventh straight national championship.
The Trojans battled the Pacific Tigers to the bitter end of last year’s NCAA finals, which saw then-senior driver Nikola Vavic fire in a goal in overtime to lift the Trojans past the Tigers 12-11 and clinch the team’s sixth national title in as many years, finishing the season with a record of 28-4.
After the departure of multiple key players, head coach Jovan Vavic faces the challenge of molding his young team into another championship-caliber squad. While the Trojans will have to overcome the exit of the younger Vavic in particular, the elder Vavic is confident his new players can pick up where the graduated players left off.
“This is the youngest team we’ve ever had,” Coach Vavic said. “We’re going to miss Nikola, he has been a big part of our team for the past four years, but we move on. He has been great for us, now somebody’s going to fill in his shoes. … I think we have some really great young talent coming in that’s going to fill the role Nikola put in, but it’s always difficult to replace a player who’s so talented and so dominant.”
Freshmen, sophomores and redshirt freshmen make up 26 of the team’s 35 players; true freshmen make up 21. Driver Marc Vonderweidt, who will provide veteran leadership as one of the team’s four seniors, emphasized how much the new-look Trojans have clicked so far.
“We graduated a lot of guys but I don’t see that as being particularly an issue,” Vonderweidt said. “We have a lot of young guys coming in right now who are willing to step up and do their part on the team. From what I see right now the chemistry on the team couldn’t be better.”
Without his son, who netted a team-high 81 goals last year and set the USC record for most career goals all-time with 254 total scores, the 12-time National Coach of the Year will look often to senior driver Kostas Genidounias for offensive firepower and veteran leadership.
“We have [Genidounias], who’s an outstanding player, who the last three years has been carrying us offensively as well,” Vavic said. “He’s going to be arguably the best player in the country next year. He has done so much for us the last three years. Kostas is a warrior so I know he’s going to get his job done.”
No stranger when it comes to finding the net, Genidounias ranked just behind the younger Vavic in scoring last season with 79 goals and has built a reputation for coming through in big moments — Genidounias scored the game-winning goal against UCLA in the championship game two years ago.
Genidounias will bear the brunt on offense, yet he believes getting everyone involved will be integral to another successful defense of their title.
“Once [Vavic] graduated, the team knew that most of the defenses are going to approach our offense trying to shut me and some of our [other] offensive threats out,” Genidounias said. “All we’ve got to do is try to play with everybody in the game and try to beat our opponents with teamwork. … One player might make a difference in one game, but in order to win a championship, all players need to contribute, so that’s how we’re going to look at it.”
Though Genidounias could eclipse his former teammate Vavic’s scoring record in his final season, having tallied 178 goals through three years, he remains geared toward his team’s success, saying the record is “not as important as winning another championship.”
The team’s 2013 championship gave the Trojans the record for most consecutive national titles in collegiate water polo history, and Coach Vavic attributes it to his coaching staff’s ability to work with new players.
“I have a very good coaching staff, and it’s not one person — it’s a team,” Vavic said. “We really do a good job in developing the players. The key is recruiting. We really have to recruit the right people. Hopefully we did a good job this year again. If [the freshmen] do a good job, we’re going to be very successful again.”
Among the incoming freshman class, goalie McQuin Baron and utility man James Walters will look to be key additions for the Trojans. Both players hail from Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California.
Though the Trojans will lose standout goalie James Clark, they have added size in the cage in the 6-foot-9 freshman Baron, who has played for the U.S. National Team and was named 2013 CIF Division I Player of the Year.
“[Baron] is one of the — if not the — most talented goalies ever coming out of high school,” Coach Vavic said. “[Baron] is going to be an impact player immediately. He’s very quick, so it’s not just his size. He has a great athletic ability — I think he’s going to be the best goalie in the country right away.”
Walters has also played for U.S. National Team and earned All-CIF Division I First Team honors last year.
In addition to chasing another NCAA title, the Trojans will be playing with a bigger purpose this year: to honor the memory of Walters’ older brother and former Trojan two-meter Jon Walters, who died of a heart attack Jan. 8.
The elder Walters helped the team win their sixth consecutive title last year as a freshman. The late Walters also netted 17 goals last year for the team, with two of his goals coming in the NCAA Semifinals against St. Francis Brooklyn.
“We have a really close group of guys, and the tragedy we all endured was very, very, very tough,” Coach Vavic said. “We’re all going to play for Jon this year. We’re all going to do a little extra to honor him.”