With yet another major hurdle cleared, just one final push stands between the USC men’s water polo team and a fifth consecutive national championship. Last weekend, USC continued its businesslike ways in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament, winning three games in as many days en route to claiming the championship and an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.
“It’s great to get this victory,” USC coach Jovan Vavic said. “Our guys had a strong week of preparation, and a very good weekend against good teams. I was especially pleased with how we finished [on Sunday] compared to the other two games.”
The Trojans, the top seed in the field after completing a unbeaten regular season, wasted no time establishing superiority in the quarterfinals against eighth-seeded UC Santa Barbara. After beating the Gauchos twice in the regular season by an average of seven goals, the Trojans overwhelmed UCSB from the start. Thanks to a seven-goal barrage in the second quarter, USC took a 12-4 lead into halftime and never looked back.
Senior driver Michael Rosenthal paced the Trojans’ scoring with four goals, while a host of others contributed to a very balanced offensive attack. On the defensive side, junior goalie James Clark and sophomore goalie Ely Bonilla split time in the cage, with the former saving six shots and the latter saving five.
In the semifinal match, USC took on the fourth-seeded Cardinal. With an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament virtually secured, the significance of the game was slightly lowered, but a perfect record and a conference tournament championship still hung in the balance.
The teams’ first two meetings were extremely competitive. In the semifinals of the NorCal tournament in September, USC needed overtime to dispose of the Cardinal, winning by a score of 10-9. In their second meeting in October, USC was able to outlast Stanford in regulation, this time by a score of 9-6. This latest matchup was even closer, with the Trojans prevailing by a score of 11-10 to earn a spot in the finals.
Though the team led the match from start to finish, Stanford gave USC all it could handle in the high-stakes game. Both sides traded goals in the first half and went into the break tied at four goals apiece. USC gained control of the match in the third quarter when a three-goal run gave the team an 8-5 lead. Goals by sophomore driver Kostas Genidounias, junior driver Nikola Vavic and junior utility Mace Rapsey gave the team enough of a cushion to withstand a furious late-game rally by Stanford.
In the fourth period, after both teams tallied goals to make the score 9-6, Stanford driver BJ Churnside ripped back-to-back goals to push the lead to just one goal. But Nikola Vavic responded by scoring his second goal of the game with just two minutes left to give USC a two-goal advantage.
But the Cardinal would not be turned away easily, as utility Alex Bowen scored his fourth goal of the night to again pull Stanford within one with 1:40 left to play. In desperate need of a clutch play to quell the Cardinal’s late rally, it was Rapsey to the rescue with a rebound backhand goal to again give the Trojans a two-goal advantage. Stanford was able to get one more goal in the dying moments of the game, but it was too late as the Trojans prevailed.
“Mac has played very well this whole tournament,” Jovan Vavic said. “When you have guys like Nikola and Kostas, who score the majority of our goals, they get most of the attention. But we have a lot of guys who can put up those kinds of numbers. That’s what’s going to happen in these types of games. Your top players may not score goals, so it was excellent to see. This was very important for him going into the NCAAs.”
In the Sunday finals against Cal, Rapsey would continue his stellar play in big moments. Cal, which needed a victory to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament, was without its top two players, drivers Collin Smith and Aleksa Saponjic, who were each ejected from earlier tournament matches and subsequently suspended. Their absence changed the way USC approached the game.
“They lost their two best players, so we were able to do more of a press defense,” Jovan Vavic said. “Some of their younger players have problems with that, so we wanted to apply a little more pressure with those two guys not out there.”
USC’s defense was dominant in the first half, only allowing one goal and causing many Cal turnovers. Two goals by Rapsey and one by Genidounias gave the Trojans a 3-1 halftime lead.
USC continued its stellar play in the third quarter, and it looked as if they would run away with the championship with ease. Nikola Vavic scored his only goal of the game, his 79th of the season, early in the period to give USC the 4-1 lead. Rapsey struck again shortly after, giving the junior his first hat trick of the season, and senior two-meter Matt Burton scored a mere thirty seconds later to push the lead to 6-1.
But the Golden Bears roared back, scoring four goals in the last three minutes of the quarter to bring the score to 7-5, with USC’s seventh goal coming on Rapsey’s fourth of the game and eighth of the tournament. Cal seemed to have all the momentum, but the USC defense buckled down.
“We just needed to keep composed,” Clark said. “Our fitness was going to push us through. It was definitely tough, though. The previous two games, we let our composure slip in the fourth quarter, so it was positive to see us not do that in this game.”
The defense clamped down and the Bears were shut out in the final frame. USC tacked on two goals by Burton and junior two-meter Connor Virjee to seal the deal and win 9-5 to capture the title and push their record to a staggering 27-0 heading into the final weekend of the season.
“It’s great to still be undefeated,” Rapsey said. “We played good defense today, something we’ve wanted to improve on from the last two games. Scoring goals doesn’t mean anything to me, though. Defense is what’s going to win us these big games. Having a good team effort, that’s all I’m worried about.”
Modest as he might be, Rapsey’s play was crucial in this tournament and is something the team is going to have to see more of in the final stretch. Jovan Vavic acknowledged that in the big games, it’s going to take the whole team to get the job done.
But with the ultimate prize well within reach, the coach who has experienced the most success a person can at this level stressed the importance of staying the course and appreciating the ride to a possible championship. When asked about his team’s approach to the championship tournament, the smile on his face as he answered suggested that he most definitely is enjoying a journey that he has made many times before.
“At this point, there’s nothing you can change,” Jovan Vavic said. “You just have to go with what you’ve got here, focus on your defense, and continue to work hard. But mainly, though, you’ve really just got to relax and enjoy it.”