It’s that time of year again: ring-fitting season for the USC men’s water polo squad. The No. 1 USC squad (29-0) danced on the edge of defeat the entire match, but scored when it mattered most, using a last-minute strike to defeat No. 2 UCLA (28-5) 11-10 for a record fifth-consecutive NCAA title.
After being tied or trailing the entire second half, sophomore driver Kostas Genidounias scored a play called “Candy,” wriggling himself free from his defender and rocketing the title-clinching goal past UCLA goalie Matt Rapacz with 40 seconds remaining. The Trojans forced a UCLA turnover on the Bruins’ final possession, played keep-away for approximately 15 seconds with the ball and then celebrated.
“Kostas is the man,” said senior two-meter Matt Burton. “That kid doesn’t feel pressure, he lives for that moment.”
The play was actually called by senior driver Tobias Preuss, and not coach Jovan Vavic.
“What a game … what a game,” Vavic said. “They [UCLA] executed really well, but our guys have been there before. They [USC] know how to win, and they have a great heart. When we needed to stop [UCLA] at the end of the game, we did.”
Due to his play in the final two games, senior driver Michael Rosenthal was named NCAA Tournament Most Valuable Player, especially after scoring two clutch goals in the final period.
“I can’t believe it, honestly,” said Rosenthal on going five-for-five on national titles during his time as a Trojan. “I wanted to come to ‘SC to see how I could get at water polo, and the decision to stay for this fifth year — and oh boy, best decision I ever made.”
Junior driver Nikola Vavic and Genidounias were also named first Team All-Tournament, while Preuss, junior utility Mace Rapsey, and junior goalie James Clark were named to the second Team. The Trojans tied their season worst with ten goals allowed, but only two of those came in the second half, where Clark shined the most.
A sold-out crowd at McDonald’s Swim Stadium made for an atmosphere worthy of a title match, and the squads did not disappoint.
Junior two-meter Connor Virjee whipped a hard shot past UCLA goalie Matt Rapacz on the Trojans’ first possession to start the Trojans off right, but UCLA’s Bret Lathrope answered a minute and a half later to even the score early.
After UCLA swatted away a Rex Butler shot on the Trojans’ 6-on-5, the Bruins’ Danny McClintick rocked a long-distance shot past USC goalie James Clark to give the Bruins a 2-1 lead.
A defensive lapse left UCLA’s Chris Fahlsing open three possessions later, and a lob shot by Paul Reynolds soon after put the Trojans in unfamiliar territory, trailing 4-1. UCLA set the tone with their physical playing style, and things almost got ugly when Preuss had his nose bloodied, then got in a scrum with Rapacz after a missed USC shot. The Trojans allowed just under six goals per game in the regular season, but let in five in just the first period and trailed 5-3 at the end of the first frame.
USC capitalized on a 6-on-4 advantage at the 6:17 mark of the second period with a Michael Rosenthal strike, then Nikola Vavic found the goal with one of his signature upper-corner strikes on the next possession to tie the match at 5 apiece. Blood wiped from his face, Preuss rocketed another shot in to give the Trojans three goals in three possessions and a 6-5 lead, and UCLA’s early three-goal lead was gone.
Their confidence however, was not. The Bruins found their offensive rhythm back and railed off three goals in a row of their own. A testy second period that saw both squad’s head coaches receive yellow cards ended with USC trailing 8-6.
Once again, USC scored on its first possession of the half, on a corner shot from Rosenthal to cut the deficit to one. A third period full of fouls but much-improved defense ended at 9-8 after USC responded to a UCLA goal by finding Mace Rapsey for a close-range strike thanks to some pinpoint passing.
The championship atmosphere was palpable in the final period, as both sides’ defenses stepped up to the occasion. Rosenthal found Burton with a lob pass early in the period, and Burton slammed it home to even the match at nine until UCLA’s Josh Samuels found the back of USC’s net with 3:09 left.
What happened next was a controversial call that nearly had UCLA screaming foul. A USC pass went out toward the out-of-bounds rope, but stopped moving before it hit the rope and thus stayed in-bounds. USC recovered the ball, and Rosenthal completed his hat trick to tie the match at 10.
A shot by Rosenthal narrowly hit the bar and skipped out on USC’s next possession but James Clark slapped away a UCLA shot on the counter.
The Bruins’ Josh Samuels and Daniel Lenhart both missed open, but long-range shots, with Lenhart’s strike skipping over the ball with 46 seconds remaining, setting up Genidounias’s title-winning shot.
“This one is really going to hurt,” UCLA coach Adam Wright said. “We were in a great situation, up one with three minutes left. Give credit to [USC]: they won, [and] five times is something tough to do.
This is the second undefeated season in program history for the Trojans and is Jovan Vavic’s eleventh NCAA title, his eighth for a men’s team.