They say the most difficult task in collegiate sports is to repeat as champions.
Starting this Saturday, the USC men’s water polo team will attempt to go about doing just that, hoping to repeat their 2008 run through the NCAA Water Polo Championship and capture a second straight title.
Despite losing in the semifinals of the MPSF tournament and finishing a surprising third in the event held at McDonald’s Swim Stadium, the Trojans (24-2, 8-0) were selected as the NCAA’s only at-large bid, and received the No. 1 overall ranking in the four team championship.
The Trojans will open with the fourth-seed Princeton Tigers (15-11), the champions of the Collegiate Water Polo Association who the Trojans defeated handily at McDonald’s 14-3 in early October.
“We trained hard, we just stuck to our plan when we got in the pool, and took care of it,” senior driver Anthony Artukovich said of the Trojan’s big win over the Tigers.
This time, however, the national semifinal will be held at Princeton’s own DeNunzio Pool, which has a reputation as one of the nation’s best home pool advantage.
Playing in front of their home crowd, the Tigers feature two All-CWPA scorers on offense, senior attackers Mark Zalewski and Douglas Wigley.
The Tiger defense is headed by junior goalie Mike Merlone, whose performance during the Eastern Championship helped the Tigers make their way to the NCAA tournament.
In the other NCAA semifinal, a Southern California matchup between MPSF tournament champs UCLA and Western Water Polo Association champion Loyola Marymount will battle for a spot in the finals.
The Trojans have had crossed paths with both teams multiple times this season, and are well prepared if they can make it past the tournament hosts on Saturday.
Against LMU this season, the Trojans have hit on all cylinders, holding the Lions to six goals or less in both swims against the team. The Trojans scored 11 goals in both matchups against the Lions, one in the season-opening Triton Invitational and another in an inter-conference matchup at McDonald’s earlier this season.
The team’s matchups with UCLA this season have been more competitive.
Most recently, the Trojans lost to the Bruins at home, ending a nearly five-season long home winning streak, in the MPSF semifinals 10-6.
In the teams’ three matchups during the regular season, the Trojans and Bruins had seen the outcome of the game not decided until the final moments of each game.
In the semifinals of both the SoCal and NorCal tournaments, the Bruins and Trojans traded off one-goal victories.
In their lone conference matchup of the season, the teams met on a Saturday night at UCLA’s Speiker Aquatics Center, and a last minute shot from redshirt junior driver Kyle Sterling sent the Trojans to a one-goal victory.
“UCLA’s always pumped up to play us, and we’re always pumped to play them,” Artukovich said. “We know each others game plan, which makes the games close, but sometimes it just falls apart for us.”
If the Trojans are successful in repeating it will cap the careers of a large group of talented seniors, which Artukovich sees as a perfect ending to his career.
“Winning would mean the world to us,” Artukovich said. “We need some closure to the great time we’ve had here. We’re a family now and we want to go out with a bang.”