It took two minutes of Saturday’s semifinal game against Harvard for the Trojans to prove that they had come into this championship with one goal in mind — an NCAA trophy.
With the band booming and a crowd of fans decked out in crimson and gold, the Spieker Aquatics Complex in Berkeley, Calif. felt like a home game environment. And from the start, it wasn’t a question which team was dominant in the pool.
After shutting out the Crimson in the first half, the Trojans earned a spot in their 12th-straight championship game with a 19-4 demolition of the less-experienced Harvard squad. The victory brought the Trojans to the game they’ve been preparing for since before this season even began.
“This was just a warm-up for tomorrow,” freshman driver Marin Dasic said. “Actually, the whole season was just warm-up for the game that is tomorrow.”
The game highlighted all of the Trojans’ strengths — stalwart defense anchored by junior McQuin Baron, a balanced, patient attack and aggressive performance in one-on-one situations.
For all four quarters, the Trojan defense smothered the Harvard attack, preventing the Crimson from creating any offensive rhythm. Each drive fell apart after several passes, and the Trojans excelled in snatching steals and forcing sloppy turnovers.
When the Crimson did sneak in a shot, Baron was there to make the save, a persistent presence on the end-line that kept Harvard scoreless for the first half of play.
Freshman Simon Wu subbed in for Baron in the second half, getting valuable minutes in a semifinal game and holding Harvard to four goals. His defense remained aggressive in their coverage, forcing passes to fly high and swatting down shots.
The Trojans were just as aggressive on the offense, offering a well-balanced attack that saw 11 players find the back of the net. The first three goals came from freshmen, showing the strength of the team’s freshman unit, with freshman driver Thomas Dunstan notching three goals.
For head coach Jovan Vavic, the ability of players of any age or position to score is the backbone of this year’s success.
“That’s been our strength all season,” Vavic said. “We really don’t have just one player who a team can say, ‘If we stop this guy we beat them.’ It’s nice to see that. It’s good for our team, for our chemistry.”
After the semifinal win, the build up to the championship game on Sunday is a familiar position for the Trojans. But though the program has seen eight national titles over the past 11 years, the last two years have ended in losses to UCLA.
Senior Nick Bell is the only player remaining on the team who holds the status of an NCAA champion. But two back-to-back championship losses to the team’s biggest rival won’t slow down this Trojan squad. It’s only making them hungrier for a win on Sunday.
“We’ve come into this whole tournament for the past two weeks thinking that we just want to play our best water polo for two games,” junior utility James Walters said. “The excitement is crazy right now. The whole team, we’re incredibly excited. We’re just ready to play this last game.”