In their first three seasons, two-meter Matt Burton, goalie Joel Dennerley and driver Peter Kurzeka, all part of USC coach Jovan Vavic’s historic 2008 men’s water polo recruiting class, formed a “Big Three,” playing integral roles on three championship teams. With the unit intact and complemented by an array of talent entering in 2011, the trio hoped to cap the greatest achievement imaginable in any collegiate sport: claiming a championship in all four seasons of eligibility.
USC won its unprecedented fourth consecutive NCAA title, but did so without its captain and All-American defensive stalwart, Burton.
In the second game of the season, a 14-3 win over Cal Baptist, Burton hyper-extended his elbow, tearing a ligament and, in the process, unceremoniously ending his bid for the fourth consecutive title with his fellow All-American captains.
“You watch all of your best friends go through a whole season,” Burton said. “I was a captain of the team, yet I was always on the sidelines and sort of cheering from the stands, which was really tough, but extremely motivating.”
Now a redshirt senior, Burton, who initially faced the possibility of undergoing Tommy John surgery, a common procedure for baseball pitchers that requires a year of recovery, admits that at first he doubted his will to rehabilitate his injury and return for another season.
“Coming back from an injury is probably the hardest thing I’ve done in water polo,” Burton said. “It’s extremely frustrating, and you’re kind of out on an island by yourself.”
As a 2008 recipient of the Elite 88 Award, given to the player with the highest GPA among all NCAA men’s water polo tournament players, Burton’s intellect provided him with options outside of water polo post-USC.
Yet, the allure of winning a fifth title and trumping his former recruiting classmates proved too enticing. Burton subsequently earned admission to USC’s progressive master’s degree program in communication management, cementing his decision.
“Last year, it was devastating for him,” Vavic said. “He really wanted to play. It was good, though, because he matured from it and learned how important water polo is for him.”
After processing and negotiating the initial disappointment of the injury, Burton used his first stint as a sideline spectator since starting college to improve his understanding of the game.
“I had a chance to sit out of the pool and get to watch from the stands and see how the game is played,” Burton said. “It helped with my water polo IQ, and now that I’m playing, I’m seeing things more and becoming a better passer.”
There is no question in Vavic’s mind that Burton will reassume his customary leadership role quickly.
“Having him back is huge for us,” Vavic said. “He’s one of the hardest workers we’ve ever had. He’s committed to winning, committed to being a champion.”
And it’s not as if Burton is the lone remaining member of the 2008 squad. Drivers Andrew Reego and Michael Rosenthal and two-meter Brian Boswell, who all had a year of eligibility remaining after redshirting their freshmen years, will similarly return for their fifth seasons in the program.
“Boswell and Rosenthal have each been around for five years, and each of them brings something different to the table,” Burton said. “I’m more of the guy that’s on people’s cases urging them to work harder. They’re the nice guys who are always cracking jokes. Losing [Dennerley] and [Kurzeka] is huge, but we’re extremely fortunate. If it happened to any other team, it would be devastating.”
As a lockdown defensive specialist who also ranked as the 2010 team’s third leading scorer with 33 goals, Burton still acknowledges that USC’s young talent will vie for his and his redshirt senior classmates’ playing time.
“I’ve started and I haven’t started,” Burton said. “I’m not too concerned about starting, because I’m pretty sure I’ll get the same amount of minutes that I’ve always gotten. [Junior utility] Mace Rapsey is a great defender, and he’s earned his playing time. If he starts over me or if I’m starting over him it doesn’t matter, because we both complement each other well.”
As for his water polo aspirations after USC, Burton plans to play professionally in Australia, with the hope of earning an Olympic nod in the future. That said, he is uncertain whether a selection to the U.S. Olympic team is his ultimate objective.
“I’ve played on international teams, but the injury has changed my mindset a bit,” Burton said. “To work for four years toward an Olympic sporting event to only possibly get injured before it would be devastating. I know a couple of guys that has happened to, and I don’t know if I’m ready to make that commitment yet.”
Burton still has time to mull his future plans. For now, he is intent on reminding his teammates that the veteran can still play.
“[Staying] kind of works in my favor,” Burton said. “I have the chance to get five rings, and a lot of my friends decided to stick around with me. And I get the John McKay Center. I guess getting injured was pretty lucky.”