In a season where explosive offensive performances have become the norm, this was by no means a normal victory for the USC women’s water polo team. In fact, it was much sweeter, as No. 1 USC was able to stifle No. 7 UC Irvine for a grind-it-out 11-3 victory.
The Women of Troy took on the Anteaters on only one day’s rest following a victory over No. 11 Loyola Marymount on Thursday in what was to be the team’s only Thursday-Saturday test of the season. Though UCI was only 15-7 coming into the game, they were not to be overlooked. Eight of the Anteaters’ wins have come against ranked opponents, and six of their losses have been by three goals or less — five of them by only one goal.
USC came charging out of the gates, as juniors Kaleigh Gilchrist and Hannah Buckling combined for three goals in the first quarter. UCI was not to be denied, however, as they went on to score three unanswered goals of their own, the last one coming with 5:56 to play in the second period.
For the Anteaters, it would prove to be their last goal of the game.
The USC defense was strong in the second quarter, allowing only one goal on five UCI power play opportunities. This strong defensive showing paved the way for more USC goals, as senior Dominique Sardo started the USC run by hauling in a deft pass from freshman Anni Espar and putting it in the net at the other end to give the Women of Troy a 4-3 advantage.
After Sardo’s strike, junior Colleen O’Donnell scored from the perimeter to give the Women of Troy a two-goal lead. Soon after, sophomore sensation Eike Daube added a goal of her own to put USC up 6-3 going into halftime. For USC head coach Jovan Vavic’s team, this halftime lead was crucial to the team’s success.
“It was very important,” Vavic said of the early jump on UCI. “[The Anteaters] were only down one going into halftime against Stanford and were down to UCLA by only one goal going into the fourth. Those are the toughest teams, and they pushed both of them to the final quarter.”
Though the six first-half goals were important, arguably more important were the four 6-on-5 stops made by the USC defense in the second quarter. If there has been one area that this team has struggled in this season, it has been 6-on-5 defense but, on Saturday, the Women of Troy bore down to deny the Anteaters on most chances.
“We say that defense wins championships, and a key part of the defense is 6-on-5 opportunities,” Vavic said. “We spend a lot of time working on ours, and we had lots of good blocks today.”
After the midway break, USC’s offense came out a little sluggish, scoring only one goal in the third quarter on a Daube-to-Gilchrist strike. The defense, however, shut the Anteaters out in the frame, allowing the Women of Troy to take a 7-3 lead into the final quarter.
The USC squad would never look back, as seniors Chelsea Silvers and Constance Hiller and sophomore Monica Vavic each scored their first goal of the game. Buckling would add on another goal, completing the team’s only hat trick of the day. When the final horn sounded, the Women of Troy left Irvine with their 20th win of the season, topping the Anteaters 11-3.
The story of the day was the USC defense, which locked the Anteaters out of the net for the final 22 minutes of play, including the entire second half and most of the second quarter. Talented as UCI is, the Anteaters were simply not able to compete with the talent and determination of the top-ranked Women of Troy.
“UCI is a very young team,” Jovan Vavic said. “It was hard for them to come back emotionally. We were able to wear them down early and that’s part of our trademark.”
The Women of Troy will come home on Saturday for their first game at USC in nearly a month. The team will face off against No. 2 Stanford at 4 p.m. at the currently under-construction Uytengsu Aquatics Center.