Water polo leaves opponents in its wake

This probably won’t come as a surprise: The USC men’s water polo team is favored to win the NCAA championship this fall.

After becoming the first school to win the NCAA championship four years in a row, the Trojans were expected to be great again this year — but what they’ve done this season so far is remarkable, and the odds are in their favor to raise the trophy once again this December.

Bear hunter · Junior utility Mace Rapsey, a 2011 All-American Honorable Mention, delivered a key goal in USC’s narrow 7-6 win over Cal last Sunday. – Ricardo Galvez | Daily Trojan

The No. 1 Trojans aren’t even halfway finished with their season, but they’ve already claimed marquee wins over the rest of the expected title contenders.

On Sept. 16, they claimed one-goal victories over then-No. 4 Stanford and No. 2 UCLA in a tournament held at the Cardinal’s home pool.

Then, in their nationally televised home conference opener against No. 4 California on Sunday, the Trojans came back in the final period to claim a 7-6 victory. And that was with All-American junior driver Nikola Vavic saying he had a bad game.

Vavic’s father, longtime USC coach Jovan Vavic, has overseen an unprecedented run by the water polo team during his 18 years at the helm.

USC hasn’t missed the four-team NCAA tournament since 2004. The squad has played in the NCAA championship match eight of the past nine years, claiming six titles.

And those championship wins have come at a variety of venues on the road — Stanford, Bucknell, Stanford again, Princeton and then Berkeley the past two years.

But this year, for the first time ever, the Trojans will have the advantage of hosting the NCAA tournament at the McDonald’s Swim Stadium on campus. USC will also play at home for the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament.

That’s a welcome sign for a team that has won 18 matches in a row at home, dating back to a 12-9 loss against California in October 2010. The Trojans ended up avenging that loss later in the season with a 12-10 win over California in their own pool to clinch the NCAA title.

Many might have expected USC to regress this year after graduating driver Peter Kurzeka, last season’s top scorer, and goalie Joel Dennerley, who last season became the first male goalkeeper to win the Peter J. Cutino Award, the most prestigious individual honor in water polo.

But the Trojans have simply replaced Dennerley with a pair of similarly impressive goalkeepers in junior transfer James Clark and redshirt sophomore Ely Bonilla.

Clark, who backed up Dennerley on the Australian national squad in this summer’s Olympics, averaged 10 saves and 4.3 goals allowed in three games. Bonilla has averaged 8.4 saves and 4.4 goals allowed per game in six appearances. Those numbers compare favorably to Dennerley, who averaged 9.2 saves and 5.4 goals allowed per game in his historic senior season.

On offense, USC has reloaded behind the younger Vavic, sophomore driver Kostas Genidounias and a whole lot of depth.

Vavic, who was second on the team last year with 41 goals, has already tallied 27 goals this season. He moved into 20th place on USC’s all-time scoring list after making the game-winning goal against Cal on Sunday.

Genidounias, the reigning MPSF Player of the Week, is the Trojans’ only other double-digit scorer with 14 goals.

The dangerous duo are just two of the 20 players that have found the back of the net for USC this season. 13 of those players have scored at least six goals.

There’s no doubt that the Trojans still have plenty of tough opponents left on the schedule — but the powerful four-team hierarchy of USC, UCLA, Stanford and Cal is rarely threatened by other teams.

One of those four teams has won every NCAA championship since 1997, when Pepperdine beat USC 8-7 in double overtime. USC hasn’t lost to an opponent outside of that four-team group since 2005, in a 5-4 road defeat also against Pepperdine.

It bodes well for the Trojans that they’ve already defeated their three main rivals this season. If USC can keep pulling off victories against those three teams when they inevitably clash in the conference and NCAA tournaments, fans could see the first ever five-peat right here on campus in December.

Does anyone want to bet against them?


“Chin Music” runs every other Thursday. If you would like to comment on this story, visit DailyTrojan.com or email Will at wlaws@usc.edu.