It was a familiar situation for the No. 1 USC men’s water polo team — a tournament against top-notch competition expected to provide an inexperienced Trojan team with a stifling challenge, a slate of games against schools all ranked in the top 10, and a situation in which a loss was more than simply a possibility.
Yet, for the Trojans last week, all of these factors simply amounted to the title with which they have become so familiar — SoCal Tournament champions.
With a weekend roadtrip away from the friendly confines of McDonald’s Swim Stadium, USC (15-0, 1-0) posted yet another solid outing, with wins over Redlands (22-5), No. 8 Long Beach State (17-5), No. 6 UC Santa Barbara (7-6) and No. 2 UCLA (9-8) to capture the program’s eighth consecutive SoCal Tournament championship, held annually at UCLA’s Spieker Aquatics Center.
In fitting fashion, the Trojans finished their last challenge of the weekend with a win over crosstown rival UCLA, parlaying multi-goal outings from freshman two-meter Jeremy Davie and sophomore utility Mace Rapsey into a renewal of the tournament title they might as well be permanent owners of.
With USC holding an unfathomable streak of eight straight titles, the SoCal Tournament could easily be mistaken by outsiders to the program as a practice meet. But with all 10 and most of the top 20 teams in the nation competing annually, this is by no means the case.
And simply coasting to yet another tournament title was not an option for the top-ranked Trojans.
Despite holding a 6-3 lead midway through the third period against UCLA, USC surrendered several goals to the Bruins, eventually reaching an 8-8 knot late in the fourth quarter.
But seasoned junior goalie Joel Dennerley stopped two 5-meter penalty shots, giving the offense a chance to regain the lead. Freshman driver Nikola Vavic wasted no time in doing so, finding the net with 35 seconds remaining to cement the victory and USC’s third straight win over the Bruins.
Against UC Santa Barbara Sunday, the Trojans faced a similar late game challenge.
Despite holding a 4-1 lead after the first frame, the Gauchos crawled back with two second quarter goals to narrow the lead to just one at halftime.
“We missed quite a few easy opportunities, and that’s really what happened,” USC coach Jovan Vavic said. “We could have been up 8-1, but if you miss opportunities, you’re going to pay the price and that’s what happened.”
Things got slowly worse for USC as the defense surrendered two more Gaucho goals, placing the Trojans in a 5-4 hole before entering the fourth quarter.
“We had quite a few shots that missed,” coach Vavic said. “It was just one of those games where the ball didn’t want to go in.”
But fortunately for the Trojans, things changed.
In the fourth quarter, USC notched three goals to cement a 7-6 win, largely because of the play of Davie — who finished with two scores — and Nikola Vavic.
“They’re both really tough and have been huge for us, especially at the end of the game where it was real close,” Jovan Vavic said.
In the closing seconds, Nikola Vavic found Davie on a counterattack and Davie’s game-winning shot with less than a minute to play gave the Trojans the lead and the win.
“We had Davie and a couple other players make a great counterattack and we were in countering really hard,” Jovan Vavic said. “The ball went to Nikola on the wing, he found Davie and gave him a really nice pass. He drew an ejection, and then Nikola gave him the ball right back and he scored the goal.”
Despite the struggle, the coach remained confident that his team performed well, considering the circumstances.
“In all three games, we gave up five, five and six goals, and that’s good,” coach Vavic said. “When you give up just five to six goals, you’re going to win quite a few games.”
Even in the events leading up to the Trojans’ evening showdown with their crosstown rivals, USC looked just as formidable, particularly in the team’s Saturday contests against Redlands and Long Beach State.
“In both of those games, it was really a team effort,” Jovan Vavic said. “We got off to a good start and never really let up. We really stayed focused and finished our shots.”
Against Redlands, 13 USC players notched at least one goal, and in the second matchup with Long Beach State, 13 players found their way onto the scoresheet as well.
Scoring came early and often. In both contests, the Trojans worked their way to leads in the opening minutes, holding halftime leads of 10-1 and 9-2, in which victories were all but assured.
With four victories this weekend, USC prolongs its reign atop the SoCal Tournament hierarchy, a position it has held since 2003. And if their success in this preseason tournament is any indication, the Trojans are not done winning just yet.