Something very unusual happened this weekend in the world of USC sports. While the football team’s loss to Boston College last week is still hard for me to wrap my head around — even after the bye week — what happened three days ago was almost just as interesting.
The men’s water polo team lost. Twice.
I jokingly texted Daily Trojan sports editor Aubrey Kragen that head coach Jovan Vavic must now be on the hot seat and we could expect to see him fired after another slip up, but she quickly caught my sarcasm. Nonetheless, the men’s water polo team has been so dominant across the country in recent memory and set such a standard for excellence that anything less than perfection brings attention.
The Trojans are the six-time defending NCAA national champions. Read that sentence five more times to fully appreciate how ludicrous, preposterous, outrageous, absurd, illogical and nonsensical that number is. LeBron James promised Miami Heat fans that he would win “not six, not seven” championships and ended up with two. Two more championships for the Trojans and the team can make an absolutely priceless parody of that LeBron video.
The team was off to an undefeated start through 10 games this season, including a big 10-3 win in a rematch of last year’s national championship game against Pacific, but a matchup against UCLA in the semifinals of the Kap7 NorCal Classic tournament hosted in Stockton, California, resulted in a 9-7 loss for the Trojans. Adding insult to injury, Cal then snuck out of the consolation game with an 11-10 win, and the Trojans ultimately finished in fourth place.
The poor result at the tournament shouldn’t be as surprising as the football team’s loss to an unranked BC team — all four of the semifinalists at this weekend’s tournament happened to be the top four teams in the country according to the most recent Collegiate Water Polo Association poll. The pair of defeats is still very noteworthy, though, because it would seem to validate the fact that USC isn’t the top-ranked team of those four.
Stanford is the No. 1 team in the country, but fell in the tournament final to No. 2 UCLA by a score of 9-7. USC sits at No. 3 in the nation, with Cal rounding out the top four. Though there may be a pair of leapfrogs in the poll, the top four will likely remain intact.
The rankings and results from this tournament indicate that there is a tremendous amount of parity within this quartet. USC’s perennial dominance would imply that the exact opposite was the case for the last six years, but looking at the Trojans’ regular season performance during their title run shows that regular season defeats are actually normal.
The 2008 and 2012 teams went undefeated, but the other four title runs featured bumps in the road against the same three teams.
In 2009, the team’s only two losses in the regular season were to the Bruins, but the Trojans beat UCLA that year in the national championship game. In 2010, the team lost to Stanford and Cal during the regular season, but beat the Bears for the title. In 2011, the squad lost to Stanford and two losses to UCLA, but the Trojans again beat UCLA in the ultimate game. The 2013 season, when USC beat Pacific in the final, also featured two losses to UCLA and one to Stanford, plus a loss to Pacific.
Think you can guess who faced USC in the grand finale in 2008 and 2012? Stanford, then UCLA.
A look at the box scores from the national championship games further shows how crazy USC’s title run has been. The 2008 game was a two-goal win, 2009 was a one-goal win and 2010 was a two-goal win in overtime. The 2011 championship was the most comfortable margin of victory as a three-goal win, but the last two have been one-goal games, with last year’s going into overtime. So that’s one three-goal win, one
Looking even further at the seven times USC has lost to UCLA in the past seven seasons, including 2014, all of the prior six of those games have been one-goal games, and two have come in overtime. Yet the Trojans have found a way to beat the Bruins three times in national championship games when it mattered most. Let’s just say they’re aren’t just our rivals in football and men’s basketball.
So if we take anything away from this weekend, it should be that everything is just fine at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center. Besides maybe Vavic’s blood pressure.
The national title streak is going to end at some point, and it could very easily be this year. In fact, if you believe that the Trojans are about equal with the other three California powerhouses and this run can only be attributed to crazy good luck in the final moments of the last six seasons, then it would be almost mathematically impossible for the Trojans not to lose their crown this year.
But you can’t possibly attribute six straight years of unprecedented success to just luck. There’s something special in these Trojans or in the way Vavic prepares them. Somehow, the pressure of the playoffs brings out the best in the team. That mentality isn’t worth much, maybe one or two goals over the course of a game, and yet that subtle distinction is the difference between a dynasty and irrelevance.
Vavic will end this season far from the hot seat. In fact, the team could probably lose every game the rest of the season and he’d still have his job because he’s proven to be the arguably the best coach in all of college sports. Nothing seems to indicate yet that this team is any different than it has been the last six years because of a graduation or any other factor, so I still think the program will win its seventh straight ring. Vavic might barely have his head above water when the season ends, but hopefully that happens when the Trojans win it all one more time and he gets pushed into the pool during the celebration.
Luke Holthouse is a sophomore majoring in broadcast and digital journalism and policy, planning and development. His column, “Holthouse Party,” runs Wednesdays.