In early season games, teams are supposed to try to shake off the rust from the offseason, work the kinks out of their systems and sometimes struggle.
Someone forgot to tell that to the No. 1 USC men’s water polo team as it opened its season by capturing the championship at this weekend’s Triton Invitational.
Following convincing wins over Pomona-Pitzer, Air Force and Loyola Marymount, the No. 1 Trojans (4-0) completed their run through the weekend tournament by defeating UC Santa Barbara by a margin of 16-5.
As the only teams in the eight-team event to finish with an unblemished record after group play had been completed, anticipation built throughout the day for the matchup of the two teams.
When the two teams finally did meet, USC got out to a fast start, much as they had in its other three matches of the weekend, scoring three quick goals, finishing the first quarter leading 5-2.
The second quarter did not see quite as much offense, but the Trojan defense continued to step up and did not suffer when sophomore driver Peter Kurzeka was able to score the only point.
Defense was a strong point for the Trojans all weekend. Led by a group of goalies — sophomore Joel Dennerley (the starter), and backups in senior Brett Giery, and redshirt freshman Will Simon — the defense combined to allow just 18 goals in four games during the tournament. For a team that led the nation in defense last season, knowing they hadn’t lost its defensive touch was important, especially for 15-year coach Jovan Vavic.
“We always focus on defense, we know how important it is,” Vavic said. “It’s our trademark.”
When the second half finally came around, it was the offense’s time to shine.
In total, 14 different Trojans scored in the final game, highlighted by the third quarter in which six different players scored six goals. This gave Vavic a good feeling going forward into the still-young season.
“Usually, at the beginning of the season, there’s a tendency to miss a lot, but our guys did a good job,” Vavic said. “We are difficult to defend.”
The Trojans were able to coast to the championship in the fourth quarter, allowing just one more goal while posting three more on offense to complete the championship game and extending their winning streak to 33 the nation’s longest.
Getting to the championship game seemed a foregone conclusion for the Trojans after the first day of the Triton Invitational, after the team scored a combined 32 goals in the first two games against Pomona-Pitzer and Air Force.
But on the second day, LMU stood between the Trojans and their eventual date with the UCSB Gauchos. LMU — who during last year’s Triton Invitational took the Trojans to a sudden-death overtime which Vavic and the team blame on a lack of recognition of the importance of the tournament — proved a tough test for the Trojans during their mid-morning meeting.
After falling behind early in the first quarter, the Trojans were able to find the equalizer from Kurzeka and then pulled ahead after a score from redshirt junior driver Kyle Sterling.
In earlier games, once the Trojans had pulled ahead they had not looked back and coasted to easy victories, but the Lions were not willing to go so quietly. The found an equalizer of their own on a five-meter penalty shot.
Finally toward the end of the second quarter, the Trojans were able to pull slightly ahead after a four-goal run. A goal from LMU just before the end of the half put a damper on the run by the Trojans, but USC came out with just as much fire as they started the game with.
Senior driver Matt Sagehorn took over and finished with a hat trick, leading the Trojans to an 11-6 final score in their final game of group play.
After the end of the Triton Invitational, Vavic, the reigning national men’s coach of the year, was reassured by where his team was after just four games in two short days.
“This early in the season, we’re in really good shape,” Vavic said.