Shocked after a loss to No. 4 UCLA in the semifinals, the USC men’s water polo team left the NorCal Tournament without a championship for the first time since 2005.
But the Trojans rebounded with a win over No. 3 California in their next match to leave on a high note.
Playing with a loss on their conscience, something the Trojans (8-1) had not felt since they fell in the 2007 NCAA Championship, the Trojans stepped up to the pool to face off against the scrappy Golden Bears and showed a resiliency not seen for some time.
Opening the third-place game against the Golden Bears, USC struggled from the outset. Both teams were coming off semifinal losses, and defenses especially struggled in the first quarter. A high-scoring opening eight minutes ended in a 3-3 tie.
But the Trojans soon showed why they were ranked a unanimous No. 1 in the preseason poll — and why their defense was the best in the nation last season.
USC allowed just one goal in each of the next three quarters, shutting down the Golden Bear offense while spreading their own offense around. USC finished with eight goals from eight different scorers.
Senior two-meter Jordan Thompson was among them. He was also one of the Trojan seniors who had not lost at the NorCal Tournament in his entire career.
The 8-6 win helped Thompson and his teammates erase their frustrating semifinal loss.
“I was incredibly impressed and proud to be a part of a group of guys who rallied from that loss and came out fighting in the second game,” Thompson said. “We didn’t have a choice to lose that game.”
The loss to UCLA came in especially heartbreaking fashion. The teams were tied heading into the fourth quarter after a defensive battle between the two rivals, and just three Trojans — senior two-meter Shea Buckner, senior driver J.W. Krumpholz and redshirt junior driver Kyle Sterling — had been able to score.
With the final seconds ticking away and the fourth quarter still scoreless, the game looked like it might head to overtime. But Bruins sophomore Cullen Hennessy fired what was just the 10th Bruins shot on goal, a testament to the strong defensive play of the Trojans. This one, though, found the back of the net, sending the Bruins to the NorCal championship game.
“There was a general lack of execution,” Thompson said of the loss.
USC’s struggles against UCLA were especially surprising given the results of the tournament’s first two games on Saturday, when the Trojans looked to once again claim the NorCal title as its own.
The Trojans opened the event against familiar foe Pomona-Pitzer, which USC had beaten to open the season 16-2 and immediately made a statement with their defense, holding the Sagehens to just one goal through the first three quarters. They eventually defeated the Division III opponent 13-3.
The victory in their opening round game set up a quarterfinal match with No. 8 UC Irvine.
USC’s defense let up just four goals to the Anteaters and two different Trojans, Buckner and senior driver Justin Rappel, each recorded hat tricks as the Trojans came away with the 11-4 win.
Execution had not been a weak spot for the Trojans leading up to the tournament, and Thompson said the team can improve its execution moving forward.
“It’s something that we will definitely fix,” Thompson said.