For the 13th year in a row, the men’s water polo team made it to the NCAA Tournament championship game. In the semifinals, they defeated last year’s champions, Cal, and prepared for what would be a cross-town rivalry showdown against UCLA for the title. After a long battle between the two on Sunday, it would be the Bruins that came out on top, 7-5.
“I’ve got to give UCLA credit,” head coach Jovan Vavic said. “They overcame a 2-0 deficit and fought hard to get back into the game. I think early in the match we had many opportunities to have a three or four goal lead and we didn’t convert and I felt that that ended up hurting us later.”
The game was aggressive from the very beginning, with many players on both sides facing early ejections. It did not help that the Trojans were already down one player out of their starting lineup either. Senior 2-meter Lachlan Edwards was sidelined for the whole game after being charged with a brutality penalty in the second half of the semi-final match against Cal the day before. While Vavic and the team do not use that as an excuse, it certainly required them to change their game plan.
“When you don’t have a strong primary center, then they can do a lot of things, and that’s really what hurt us,” Vavic said. “We had plenty of opportunities ourselves despite that. We had a lead, we had created many opportunities, and we missed our 6 on 5 shots. There is nobody to blame there except for us.”
However, Vavic was proud of the players who stepped in to try and fill Edwards’ position. One of them, was his brother and fellow senior, Blake. To honor his brother, Blake wore his brother’s No. 14 cap so that even though he would be missing his last collegiate water polo match, a part of him would still get to be in the pool with their teammates.
The other main player to step into the Edwards’ role was sophomore Thomas Dunstan, who recorded a key assist to senior Matteo Morelli for the first goal of the game and give USC an early lead over the Bruins in the first quarter.
“We had to make adjustments and I think that our guys did a great job,” Vavic said. “Thomas Dunstan did a great job holding up, Blake did a great job and I think these players really stepped up in a tremendous first half for us.”
Even though the outcome was not what the Trojans wanted, they duked it out until the very end, never once giving up. USC maintained the lead going into the second period, but UCLA’s strong offensive push in the third forced the Trojans to step up and deliver. In the fourth, USC brought it back to a tie game with a score by Blake Edwards off two quick passes, but UCLA would quickly respond with their own goal that couldn’t be matched and would lead to the 7-5 victory.
“It’s disappointing,” senior utility James Walters said. “Every time you go into it, you want to give it your all and you do, and it just didn’t work out. When it came down to it, we didn’t put away our shots and they put away theirs. So, that’s the way it goes. We aren’t happy with it, but we gave it our best effort.”
For USC’s team with thirteen graduating seniors, the final loss was an emotional one. Yet, what the team accomplished this year and the last three years is still something they should all be proud of. They made it to the NCAA Championship game each year, won the MPSF Tournament title this year, and had five players make the All-Tournament Team.
“It has been a long, long time since my senior class didn’t win a title, so I feel very sad for them,” Vavic said. “We were so close so many times, but I will tell you something … I felt that these boys are great players and we had a great team and we overcame some adversity last night to even be in this game. I’m very proud of them and I will miss them.”
Walters added that he was just grateful to play in the game.
“I think I speak for everyone when I say that the time being here with this coaching staff, I’ve absolutely loved being a part of this program,” he said. “We’ve learned a ton and I’m proud of my guys and how far we came all these times because it’s not easy getting there.”