A heart for the team

Denise Mammolito throws above a couple of defenders in the water
Redshirt senior driver Mammolito scored seven goals over the two-game series against Stanford, earning her MPSF Player of the Week recognition. (Simon Park | Daily Trojan)

One early afternoon in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., high school freshman Denise Mammolito tried out for her high school’s water polo team because her best friend wanted to try out. A few years later, Mammolito scored 11 goals to bring Rancho Cucamonga High School a 18-6 win in a tournament. Now, Mammolito sits at No. 12 on the USC women’s water polo career record scoring list. 

This was just a natural progression for the standout redshirt senior driver. 

“I actually started playing fairly late compared to most girls,” Mammolito said. “I started my freshman year of high school — my best friend wanted to try out, so I was like, ‘OK, I’ll do it with you.’ So I made the freshman team at my high school, and it ended up clicking.”

Mammolito’s father Louis relayed her growth as an athlete as something that stood out within their family of seven.

“Denise, always was kind of an all-in kid,” Louis said. “We have five, so you always try to coax them in a direction that you think they’ll be successful. She was always really natural, in the water. So her evolution was so quick and so short, it was amazing. And I was like, wow she throws really good. She can really get out of the water. From her freshman year to her sophomore year, she progressed a ton.”

Years later, just as the Trojans’ 2020 season was clicking, with the team holding a 12-1 record heading into more conference battles, the pandemic induced-cancellation of their matchup against Cal in mid-March sealed the fate of the season for good.

2020 was supposed to be the year that USC would avenge their loss to Stanford in the 2019 NCAA Championship final, to repeat their 2018 Championship win and for the six seniors poised to graduate to finish off their careers on a high note. 

Mammolito, being one of those seniors, waited for the NCAA to make an unprecedented decision on the fate of the season.

“I was very antsy for a long time because it was kind of difficult because we were waiting, and we knew that we needed to keep training but we never really had a set and secure date for where we were going to come back, and it felt like it just kept getting pushed back and pushed back,” Mammolito said. “I feel like it would have been easy to kind of just get down and stop training, but we knew that we needed to keep pushing.”

Eventually, Mammolito would head back to the pool with another friend — this time junior utility Bayley Weber. Neither teammate missed a step when the NCAA announced in late March 2020 that athletes could choose to play for an extra year of eligibility. 

“She got her fifth year, we decide[d], she decided to stay and I decided to move in with her,” Weber said. “So all of summer and the nine months we were out because of [the coronavirus], we trained together, which I think helped keep our bond.”

Though Louis and his wife could not see their daughter play in person for the past year, he describes it as a small price to pay in order for Denise to get that final year in the books.

“So the way I see it, it’s like you know me getting to see is like 10% of the 100%, and then the 90 is her getting to play and her getting to enjoy her playing and enjoy her teammates, enjoy her coaches and the competition, and [give us] the phone call after the game,” Louis said.

The dedication Mammolito gives to the program and to the sport itself may not always show up in her stat sheet, but it is recognized by the team regardless, according to head coach Marko Pintaric. 

“Her awareness and willingness to help, it’s always great,” Pintaric said, describing their recent bout against No. 2 Stanford at home. “She’s doing a lot of dirty work for us, and it’s not always registered in general stats … and she hustles for her teammates and it was great this game; she really carried the team on both ends.”

The Trojans’ two-game series against the Cardinal, often their most difficult opponent each season, earlier in April also brought a sense of nostalgia for Mammolito. While USC secured a 12-8 win in its first game against Stanford, the outcome of its second game against the Cardinal would not come as easily.

“Actually before that game in our meeting, [Coach] Pinta brought up how that was going to be the seniors’ last time playing Stanford at home,” Mammolito said. “So I think that going into that game, that was something that we all — we all really wanted to go out strong against them — just because we do have that really big rivalry.”

USC trailed by two in the fourth quarter, but Mammolito’s goal in overtime — her sixth in regulation and her tenth goal across the series — won the game and earned her her first-ever MPSF Player of the Week award. 

“So even though we were down by two going into the fourth quarter, like we knew that we were able to overcome that,” Mammolito said. “And I think that says a lot about our team, being able to overcome that adversity. But yeah, we just really wanted to win that game. So we could end our career against Stanford at USC on a high note.”

Weber added that the team was able to find Mammolito for those points because of her willingness to fill in at any position, which is something that will impact the program even after her last season.

“She’s willing to do whatever the team needs,” Weber said. “If the team needs her to guard she’ll guard … [when] the team needs her to set she’ll set … ultimately, … she’s always giving you 100% and anybody that comes into the program can see that. I think that’s a great thing.”

Pintaric agreed, acknowledging that the knowledge her teammates possess about her abilities, rather than Mammolito’s game awareness alone, made each and every drive count. Redshirt seniors driver Kelsey McIntosh and utility Maud Megens made some of those assists that would allow Mammolito to put the ball away. 

“It’s just her playing on both ends and [her saying], ‘I’m going to push, I’m going to be brave,’ [and stepping] into the right place at the right time,” Pintaric said. “And then again you have to give credit to her teammates as well to find her.”

Even with the bonds Mammolito has with her fellow seniors, she’s always looking out for the younger teammates that are paving their own way through the program.

“We all want to help each other in the water, and that’s how it is for the younger girls too,” Mammolito said. “We really want to see them succeed. And we also want to help develop them, so that when we do leave that they’re able to form these leadership roles and kind of these bigger roles up on the team that we have right now.”

Prior to No. 1 USC’s loss to No. 3 UCLA in Sunday’s regular season finale, the Trojan’s were undefeated and held a 17-0 record. Still, despite the loss, the team is poised to enter both the MPSF and NCAA tournament as an undisputed top seed, an accomplishment that owes a lot to Mammolito’s strong performances throughout the season.

However, before Mammolito leaves the Trojan ranks for good, she wants to end up on top — not for herself, but for the team she’s constantly rallying for.

“It’s got to be jumping in at the end of the season at UCLA,” Mammolito said. “Finishing off our careers on top, I really don’t think that there’s anything that can top [it], and I know for our senior class, we really really want to help the freshmen, sophomore, junior class win their first national championship. Because we weren’t able to do that in 2019, and then obviously the season ended in 2020. So we’ve waited a really long time for this opportunity. So yeah, I don’t think there’s anything that could top that.”