Academic rise has boosted water polo

The USC men’s water polo program is easy to compliment. It’s become, more or less, the pretty girl at the bar.

And it’s easy to see why.

Over the last three seasons, the Trojans have compiled an overall mark of 83-4 en route to three straight NCAA championships.

With the 2011 season slated to begin in five days, nothing has changed.

“This really could be our best team, talent-wise and defensively,” USC coach Jovan Vavic said without wincing — not even once.

It wouldn’t be groundbreaking to note things are going well for Vavic and company. The lone departures from a year ago are driver Mason Hawthorne, who graduated in May, and two-meter Zayne Belal, who left the program. Everyone else is back, hoping to become the first team in the history of the sport to win a fourth consecutive national title.

“We’ve never had this before,” Vavic said when asked about the high number of returners. “This is a very unique situation.”

It’s certainly a remarkable turn of events for a USC program that prior to 1998 had never won a men’s water polo national title. It begs the question: How did things get this good? How did the California collegiate water polo scene change so dramatically and so drastically in USC’s favor?

In short, recruiting.

“Players that are joining us now want to win a championship,” Vavic said. “They want to win it now and this is where they see their best chance.”

Vavic has, no doubt, stockpiled on the recruiting trail. Four titles in six seasons unquestionably remains a significant draw for many. There’s little question there.

But the 17-year coach also credits the school’s meteoric rise on the academic spectrum for USC’s current place atop the water polo food chain.

“USC has become much better academically,” Vavic said. “I think our university has done a great job improving the academic side.”

The Daily Beast has already named USC the hottest school of the decade.

“Stanford. Duke. Northwestern. These are just some of the schools that counselors report USC will soon surpass as one of most sought-after campuses in the country,” it said.

And last fall U.S. News & World Report ranked USC 23rd among national universities, ahead of crosstown rival UCLA.

Perhaps most notably, the school, under President C. L. Max Nikias, has raised $1 billion in the last year as part of a campaign to garner a total of $6 billion — the largest fundraising goal in American academia, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“In times where other schools are struggling, because they depend on government money, we are really able to do so well,” said Vavic, who says he has used this as a selling point to recruits. “I think it’s really nice to be able to see there’s a program out there not struggling.”

Academics and athletics don’t always go hand in hand, which makes water polo’s situation all the more rare.

Sports such as football and men’s basketball have historically been hampered by increasing academic standards, as well as the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate, which was instituted in February 2005.

Vavic, however, has emphasized the classroom, while bringing in top recruiting classes annually.

“Water polo is not something that’s going to set you up for life,” Vavic said. “You aren’t going to do this forever. If you’re a football player or a basketball player, you have a chance to go to the pros. Here, we don’t.”

It’s a different mentality that contrasts football, Vavic said.

“Water polo players are primarily academically oriented,” Vavic said. “So many of these kids that are coming to our school are coming here for academics.”

But even still, for a team this good, this talented, it’s tough to simply dub them “academically oriented.” It boasts a trio of senior All-Americans in two-meter Matt Burton, goalie Joel Dennerley and driver Peter Kurzeka that are among the best nationally, as well as a talented group of underclassmen highlighted by sophomores Nikola Vavic and Jeremy Davie, who led USC in scoring in 2010, with 49 and 41 goals respectively.

“Our entire starting unit is back and all are healthy,” Vavic said, as he made a point to knock on his wooden desk. “They’re hungry too with all the new guys and guys who redshirted last season.”

Because of their recent run of near-invincibility, Vavic contends the current group ranks among his best in recent memory.

“We are extremely balanced at every position,” Vavic said. “We are basically three deep everywhere and the competition for playing time is fierce.”


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