Down a goal in the NCAA title match with the clock winding down, the six-time defending national champion Trojans had the ball right where they wanted it: in senior driver Kostas Genidounias’ hands.
But USC’s all-time most prolific scorer couldn’t save the day this time, as his potential game-tying shot against the No. 1 UCLA Bruins sailed over the crossbar, and the Trojans fell by a 9-8 score.
“Originally the play was for me to go pick another player so I could get an easier defender on me,” Genidounias said after the game. “[UCLA’s] Cristiano Mirarchi has been doing a great job all season long and this game guarding me. The pick didn’t work. I was trying to work for a foul but it didn’t happen. … Last night it went. This night, today, it didn’t go. That’s what happens in sports.”
Genidounias was referring to his sudden-death overtime game-winner against Stanford one day prior, which earned the Trojans a 12-11 victory and a slot in the title match. His goal sent the Trojans into their fifth matchup against UCLA this season. Of the first four, UCLA won three and USC one once, so the players knew they had their work cut out for them.
Indeed, the Trojans never led in the championship match, going down 2-0 early and 3-1 after that. The young USC team was on its heels most of the match, but had come from behind against Stanford as well, so the players never gave up.
Down 4-2 at halftime, the Trojans burst out of the gates in the third quarter with a quick goal by freshman driver Matteo Morelli. In similar fashion, Genidounias scored in the first seconds of the fourth period to bring the score to 7-5.
USC head coach Jovan Vavic sang the praises of his players for showing such resilience.
“I’m very proud of my boys,” Vavic said. “I think they are warriors, they are fighters. They gave it all they got.”
The Trojans showed their fight all the way until the end of the game. Though not accustomed to being underdogs, the team reveled in the chance to mount a comeback. In the fourth period, Genidounias and senior driver Marc Vonderweidt led the charge and tied things up at 7-7. UCLA quickly scored again, but Vonderweidt put another goal on the goal to even it at 8-8 with just under three minutes left in the game.
Though Vavic said in his post-game press conference that he thought USC would win after the last equalizer, Vonderweidt said he had to keep his emotions in check after he scored.
“You try to take every play one step at a time,” he said. “You don’t want to get too ahead of yourself. Obviously, after a goal like that, momentum’s kind of in your favor, so you try to roll with it and take it as far as you can, but you take it one step at a time.”
Momentum might have been in USC’s favor, but everything can change in an instant, as the game did when UCLA’s Danny McClintick rifled in a shot from close with just 34 seconds remaining in the match.
The Trojans had trouble containing McClintick all day, as he finished with four goals — the only Bruin with more than one.
With no timeouts left, the Trojans made their final drive, but couldn’t come up with another equalizer, allowing the Bruins to walk away with their first men’s water polo championship since 2004.
Genidounias and Vonderweidt scored two goals apiece in their last game as Trojans. Morelli also added a goal, as did freshmen utility men James Walters and Mihajlo Milicevic, and sophomore driver Nick Bell.
The Trojans finished the season with a 24-7 record and a 6-2 mark in conference play, while UCLA went undefeated in MPSF play and capped off a 29-3 season.
USC’s Genidounias finished the year with 82 goals and ended his USC career with 261 goals, surpassing Vavic’s son, Nikola Vavic, as the Trojans’ all-time leading scorer.
“We’ve never had a player like Kostas,” Coach Vavic said. “He’s the most unique player I’ve ever had and he’s the best player this program ever had. He carried us this season and has been the boy with character, toughness, [and he’s] unselfish. Everything you can ask of a player. I’m gonna miss him — we’re gonna miss him.”
In addition to Genidounias and Vonderweidt, it was the last game at USC for senior driver Rex Butler and senior two-meter Max Hurst-Mendoza. The Trojans will only lose these four players to graduation, and will be stacked with talent in the years to come.
Freshman goalie McQuin Baron racked up six big saves in the game, and will likely be one of the strongholds for a Trojan team with a very bright future.