The USC men’s water polo season ended last year with a heart-stopping last-second triumph over crosstown rival UCLA. The 11-10 victory capped off a perfect season, in which the Trojans went 29-0 to claim the national championship.
While the team’s most recent campaign was undoubtedly impressive, its success shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. USC climbed further into the record books of collegiate sports history by winning an unprecedented fifth consecutive national championship.
Success is no longer a goal; it is simply a reality for a program that undoubtedly enters each year with national championship expectations.
This season the Trojans will have to deal with some key losses — most notably driver Michael Rosenthal, who was named the NCAA Tournament’s Most Valuable Player. But despite his departure, the goal for the program remains the same: To capture the national championship.
These lofty expectations, however, don’t figure into the mindset of the Trojans, who are simply focused on getting better each day.
“We don’t think about the bust [not winning a national championship],” head coach Jovan Vavic said. “We focus on the training and the time and just believe that we are going to win every game.”
Vavic, having just won his 12th coach of the year award, will rely heavily on his son, senior driver Nikola Vavic.
The younger Vavic returns after an incredible junior season, in which he set a USC single-season scoring record with 83 goals, leaving him just 48 goals away from taking over as USC’s all-time leading scorer.
Senior two-meter Jeremy Davie, who ranked fifth on the team last year with 29 goals, will also be depended upon in the squad’s quest for a sixth consecutive national title after earning All-American Honorable Mention and All-MPSF First Team honors last year.
“We lost some key players,” Davie said. “But we have young players ready to step up and play and it’s exciting.”
One of those exciting young players is freshman Jon Walters from national powerhouse Mater Dei High School. Walters won numerous player of the year honors and led the Monarchs to an undefeated season and CIF championship, and is expected to contribute right away.
Moreover, there will be greater opportunities for lesser-known returning players to have expanded roles. Redshirt sophomores Russell Renteria and Chase Watson, two-meters who saw limited action last year, are expected to get a chance to contribute to the team in a much greater capacity this year.
Though these newcomers will be essential to the continued success of the Trojans, the strength of the team most certainly lies in its returning veterans.
“Fourth-year guys like Rex Butler, Nikola [Vavic], our goalie [James] Clark … that’s going to be the strength of our team,” Vavic said. “But guys like Russell [Renteria] and Mac Carden are still going to be given a great opportunity this year.”
Davie’s Australian mate in the cage, goalie James Clark, will be pivotal for the Trojans. The 6-foot-5 senior enters his second season for the Trojans, having transferred from the University of West Sydney as a sophomore, as a player expected to shine in his final season. Clark will have to make good on those expectations if the Trojans are to have another successful campaign.
Their top competition nationally will come from right at home in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, which contains USC’s biggest rivals in the Pac-12 and is considered the most competitive water polo conference in the nation.
USC enters the season at their usual spot, ranked No. 1 nationally, but with UCLA, Cal and Stanford right behind the Trojans at No. 2, 3 and 4, respectively.
The Trojans are scheduled to scrimmage both UCLA and Cal in the preseason, but the true tests will come in November, with games scheduled against Stanford and UCLA.
The game on Nov. 21 against UCLA will be especially challenging, as it takes place in the hostile confines of Westwood. It will be the first official meeting between the two teams since last year’s NCAA final, one of the most dramatic games in recent memory.
Being the defending champion undoubtedly puts a target on a team’s collective back, regardless of sport or school. But being a five-time consecutive champion will put an unprecedented amount of pressure on the Trojans. Still, they remain unfazed, even though they enter each game knowing they have a target on their backs.
“Being a Trojan means from the start that the other team is out of its game already,” Davie said. “It’s more pride than pressure to perform. It means a lot to all of us to be Trojans.”
When the Trojans open up their season on Sept. 7 with a game against Cal Baptist as part of the Triton Invitational, they will begin their fifth straight championship defense. No program at USC has made winning look as easy or effortless as the men’s water polo team, a fact that is both a blessing and a curse.
Any other team might be content with one championship, let alone five, but USC men’s water polo is not any other team. Come next December, the assumption and expectation for this team is a national championship. And judging by the team’s talent and attitude, this team looks well- equipped to do just that.