After the end of its win streak, USC women’s water polo eyes bigger goal

For the last two seasons, the USC women’s water polo team has made a living atop the polls as the No. 1 team in the nation, defeating — and sometimes, obliterating — every opponent in its path and running the show in all of collegiate water polo. After an undefeated 2016 campaign that culminated in the program’s fifth-ever NCAA National Championship last May, the Trojans were still riding high. They carried that momentum over into 2017, rattling off 25 more consecutive wins to set a new national women’s collegiate water polo record of 52 consecutive victories in the process.

However, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end.

In a highly anticipated matchup between the nation’s best earlier this month, the then-No. 1 Trojans ran into a tough Stanford squad at home and could not find the offensive firepower needed to keep their streak alive, falling to the Cardinal by a score of 12-8 at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center. It was the team’s first loss since falling to Stanford in the 2015 NCAA semifinal.

USC went exactly 700 days between losses, from May 9, 2015 to April 8, 2017 — a remarkable feat in a sport that is so top-heavy with the likes of perennial water polo powers Stanford, UCLA and Cal competing for national championships year-in, year-out.

If one knows anything about USC water polo, it’s that you can never count out a team coached by Jovan Vavic. Vavic, who is in his 23rd year at the helm of both the USC men’s and women’s water polo programs, is one of the most successful coaches in the history of the sport. With 14 national championships under his belt and a near .800 career winning percentage, a loss in the middle of the season isn’t enough to push the panic button. Instead, it’s merely a bump in the road toward something greater: winning back-to-back national titles.

So, what do Vavic and the Trojans want to do now? It’s simple: Start a new streak.

“That streak itself was such a huge accomplishment, and it’s nice that our hard work resulted in something big,” senior captain Avery Peterson said. “But our main goal isn’t to extend a winning streak — it’s much bigger than that. We want to win another national championship and bring it back home to USC.”

Despite the setback, USC remains one of the best teams in the nation. The team boasts a number of offensive weapons that make up the MPSF’s top-scoring team with 15.92 goals per game, led by senior driver and 2016 Peter J. Cutino Award winner Stephania Haralabidis’ 73 goals on the season. In fact, every Trojan starter has scored at least 10 goals this year, with 13 different Trojan players reaching double-digits in 2017. Haralabidis, who delivered a whopping nine-goal outing earlier this season, currently stands second all-time in program history with 258 career goals. She is joined by twin sister and fellow senior driver Ioanna Haralabidis, who is 10th all-time at USC with 167 career goals and 49 on the season.

In addition, senior All-American 2-meter Brigitta Games and star freshman utility Maud Megens have each put up 50 goals this year to tie for second on the team, while junior drivers Hayley McKelvey and Brianna Daboub have scored 30 and 29 goals, respectively, to round out the top five. Two more standout freshmen drivers, Denise Mammolito and Kelsey McIntosh, have racked up 26 and 19 goals each, while senior 2-meter Avery Peterson has also tallied 19 goals on the season.

Furthermore, a staunch defensive corps has cemented USC as one of the toughest teams in the country to score against, as the Trojans allow just 4.23 goals against per game. Part of that is attributed to Vavic’s strong goalkeeping tandem of sophomore Amanda Longan and junior Victória Chamorro, who split time in the cage. Longan, a First Team All-American, has recorded 168 saves on the season with a 10.67 saves per game average, while Chamorro, a 2016 Rio Olympian for Brazil, has tallied 92 saves and held opponents to a 3.0 goals against per game average. Furthermore, Chamorro is currently No. 6 all time at USC for career saves with 366, while Longan is right behind her at
No. 7 with 313 saves.

Longan, a team captain, has been a vocal leader for the Trojans both in and out of the pool ever since she stepped onto campus last year. She knows USC has the talent to win another title, and while the loss to Stanford wasn’t ideal, Longan believes in the makeup and resolve of her team.

“Every single time we play a game, there is something on the line,” Longan said. “So for us, we have to remember to fight and play for each other. The wins or the streak — that’s all great — but what we want to do at this point is just play for each other. Those wins will come if we play together and to our abilities.”

With a trip to Indianapolis, Ind. for the 2017 NCAA Championships on the horizon, the Trojans are ready to leave what was in the past behind and start anew with a bigger prize in mind: a sixth NCAA title for the program.