Chase for the title

The chase for history runs its course in Berkeley, Calif.

Young gun · Sophomore driver Nikola Vavic has netted 36 goals this season — second best on USC. As a freshman in 2010, Vavic helped the Trojans notch their third straight NCAA title. - Chris Roman | Daily Trojan

The No. 1 USC men’s water polo has been thinking about this weekend — the weekend of the NCAA tournament at California’s Spieker Aquatic Center — for the past three months.

The Trojans (22-3, 8-0) head into the competition as the top seed in the tournament with the same goal in mind. If it wins the tournament this weekend, the Trojan squad will become the first to ever earn a four-peat.

“We are looking forward to another trip to Berkeley,” USC coach Jovan Vavic said. “It’s been on our minds all year long that we would make history.”

No. 2 UCLA, No. 3 UC San Diego and No. 4 Princeton comprise the rest of the field. USC will play its first game against the Tigers (21-9) on Saturday at 1 p.m. while UCLA (23-4, 6-2) and UC San Diego (17-9) face off two hours later. The next day the championship game will be at 3 p.m., and the third-place game at 1 p.m.

The Trojans’ 13-game winning streak was snapped by UCLA, the No. 2 seed in the tournament, in last weekend’s Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament.

But as USC is on the cusp of history, it insists it’s not distracted. Not now, not ever. Despite losing in the final round, it still received the at-large bid and top seeding at NCAAs.

“This team, whenever we needed to win games this season, when it was a must-win, we won it,” Vavic said. “That’s why we are No. 1.”

The MPSF also recognized the continual dominance that USC brought to the water polo world Tuesday, honoring five Trojans with awards. Senior goalie Joel Dennerley became the first ever back-to-back conference player of the year and was placed on the 2011 All-MPSF first team.

Three other Trojans joined Dennerley on the First Team: senior driver Peter Kurzeka, sophomore two-meter Jeremy Davie and sophomore driver Nikola Vavic, the most all-conference first-teamers in USC history. Freshman driver Kostas Genidounias added to the count of those recognized with his 2011 MPSF Honorable Mention.

“The backbone of our team is Dennerley, Kurzeka, Davie and [Nikola] Vavic,” USC coach Jovan Vavic said. “They have to play well — they are our key players.”

The Trojans entered this season with the No. 1 ranking, and after a brief stint as No. 2, made their way back to the top of the charts. Even with the water polo world fully aware of USC’s mission toward a 4-peat, and each team determined to stop the Trojans, USC heads into the NCAA tournament understanding its potential.

“We knew all year long that we are the team to beat,” Jovan Vavic said. “We have been dealing with pressure well before the season.”

That pressure, however, has not stopped the Trojan offense from averaging 11.6 goals per game, or the defense from holding its opponents to a mere 5.5 goals per game. One of the Trojans’ biggest strengths has been diversity — nearly every offensive player has contributed at least once this season.

The Trojans have worked hard this season, all with the goal of winning a fourth-consecutive NCAA title in the back of their thoughts. In two short days, they will have the chance to make their dreams a reality.