It was a long time coming, but the USC women’s water polo team finally got its rematch against reigning national champion No. 1 Stanford.
After Sunday’s game, it is fair to say they did not squander their opportunity.
But the path to the much-anticipated rematch was not clear when play began on Sunday. After routing No. 18 Pacific and No. 7 San Diego State on Saturday to begin the festivities at the UCI Invitational, the Women of Troy (12-0) had to get past the semifinal game against crosstown rival No. 3 UCLA.
Led by a scoring attack of freshman driver Anni Espar, sophomore driver Monica Vavic and senior driver Dominique Sardo — who each had a multigoal game — USC was able to set the pace, but the Bruins (16-2) were never far behind.
With two seconds left on the clock in the fourth quarter and the score notched at 10-10, junior two-meter Kaleigh Gilchrist rocketed the go-ahead goal past UCLA goalie Sami Hill. With no time to mount a threatening attack, the Women of Troy triumphed by a final score of 11-10.
With the semifinal win, USC was matched up against rival Stanford in what would prove to be a star-studded championship game, with two 2012 first-team All-Americans squaring off against one another in USC’s Vavic and Stanford’s sophomore driver Kiley Neushul.
The Women of Troy jumped out to a 4-2 lead at the end of the first quarter, but the Cardinal took the lead in the second quarter, rattling off four unanswered goals to take a 7-5 lead. It wasn’t until the final two minutes of the half that USC began their comeback effort, when junior two-meter Hannah Buckling tacked on two goals to even the score.
It was the third quarter that made the difference in this one, however, as Buckling, Vavic and junior driver Kelly Mendoza scored three consecutive goals to put USC ahead 11-8. The team’s ability to hold strong, despite facing a multigoal deficit to the defending champions, was not lost on USC head coach Jovan Vavic.
“They never quit,” Jovan Vavic said of his players. “We had an excellent third quarter, and that was the turning point of the game for us.”
The Women of Troy would never trail again, holding on for the 13-10 victory in the rematch of last season’s national championship game.
“It was the first time winning a SoCal tournament for a majority of the team, and it was great to have Anni [Espar] out there,” Monica Vavic said. “Those were her first games with us, so to win the tournament with her was huge.”
In addition to the pride gained from defeating four in-state rivals, the Women of Troy gained something else from this tournament victory, something far more important: a greater chance of making the NCAA tournament.
Eight teams make the field at the end of the season, and six of those eight spots are reserved for conference champions. Though winning the conference championship is the preferred method of entering the tournament, locking up at least a wild card spot is the aim of most teams, and Jovan Vavic knows just how important these wins are to his team’s tournament chances.
“Every game is so important,” Jovan Vavic said. “Getting a 1-0 jump on conference rivals is huge if it comes down to head-to-head records.”
The wins against UCLA and Stanford were especially important because USC meets those schools each only once more during the regular season. An early win against both of them only increases their chances of receiving a bid into the NCAA tournament and ensures, at the very, least a split in the teams’ season series.
So far, the Vavic family has had a lot to celebrate in the past six months. USC’s men’s water polo team, led by national player of the year Nikola Vavic, posted a 29-0 record en route to its unprecedented fifth consecutive national championship. The women’s team has yet to drop a game all season and is led by the aforementioned Monica Vavic, whose 38 goals this season far and away lead the team in scoring. With one half of the battle already won, the possibility remains for Jovan Vavic to take home both men’s and women’s national championships, something he hasn’t done since the calendar year of 2010.
USC, still yet to play a home game this season, will travel to Berkeley on Saturday, March 2 to take on conference rival No. 4 Cal at 1 p.m.