The No. 1 USC men’s water polo team did it. It made history.
With a 7-4 victory against No. 2 UCLA in the NCAA championship game on Sunday, the Trojans (24-3, 8-0) went down in the record books, becoming the first men’s water polo team to win four consecutive national titles.
Seven different players scored each of USC’s goals, and thanks to an early 5-0 run by the Trojans, the team held back the Bruins and won another NCAA crown at the Spieker Aquatics Complex in Berkeley, Calif.
“This game today was just unbelievable,” USC coach Jovan Vavic said. “It was one of those games where everything went our way. Defense was great. Our best players played the best water polo. Joel [Dennerley] was on top; they really couldn’t score on him. It was a great team effort.”
The Bruins kicked off the game with the first of their four goals, a shot from utility Josh Samuels with three minutes left in the first frame. USC responded with two quick goals, however, making the score 2-1 entering the second quarter. Even in a game riddled with exclusion penalties from both teams, the second quarter marked the accumulation of the Trojan’s five unanswered goals. UCLA got back on track with 2:29 left in the half with another shot from Samuels, but the score was still in favor of USC by halftime, 5-2.
Minutes into the third quarter, a yellow card was ordered on Vavic. A dry third quarter made way for a USC goal from freshman driver Kostas Genidounias with 1:30 left. UCLA came back, notching a goal with 20 seconds left in the third. The teams went into the fourth quarter with the Trojans up, 6-3.
A quick pass from senior driver Peter Kurzeka to sophomore driver Jeremy Davie, who notched a goal, quickly increased USC’s lead to 7-3 in the fourth. UCLA’s Brett Hays scored with 4:19 left in the fourth, forcing the Trojans to call a timeout. With the score 7-4 and only four minutes left, the Trojans managed to maintain the score and, with the USC fans in the crowd chanting “four-peat” in the background, grabbed their fourth straight national title.
Kurzeka and senior goalie Joel Dennerley, now proud owners of four national title rings, one for each year they have played on the USC team, led the team to its victory over the Bruins.
“I am so proud of these guys, and proud of Peter and Joel as seniors and leaders of this team,” Vavic said. “We are going to miss them. It’s going to be tough to replace them. It’s gonna be, actually, impossible to replace them.”
Dennerley ended the game with 15 saves and the NCAA tournament MVP award. His efforts were applauded by Vavic immensely.
“We helped [Dennerley] out by playing really good defense … but I think after Joel makes a couple of big saves early in the game, it usually gets in your head,” Vavic said. “As a shooter you don’t want to shoot the ball anymore. The arm gets heavy and you start thinking about it. You could see that the UCLA players were thinking about it.”
Dennerley, however, gave even much of the credit to the defensive effort as a whole.
“We had a great system and the situations that UCLA prepared for us, we had solutions for them so the credit goes to the defense,” he said. “They did their job and I did mine, and we got the win.”
Kurzeka’s assists also proved crucial, and carried the offense to goals from seven different players. Kurzeka and sophomore driver Nikola Vavic were placed on the NCAA Tournament First Team as well, while sophomore two-meter Jeremy Davie earned a spot on the Second Team.
Vavic now holds 10 national championships as a water polo coach for USC, seven with the Trojans and three with the women’s team.
With this victory, the Trojans have won a national title five times in the last seven years they have made an appearance in the NCAA championship tournament. With their hopes now transformed into reality, the Trojans look toward the future with even bigger goals.
“It’s hard enough to make it out of this conference to a four-team tournament,” Kurzeka said. “On a big scale we did realize that but hopefully they can go for five, I am fully backing them.”
Four years ago, when Kurzeka walked away with his first NCAA title with the team as a freshman, he hugged his coach and told him the team would do that three more times. Vavic scoffed then, and asked Kurzeka if he knew how difficult it was to win even one national title. For a team so accustomed to winning, maybe he didn’t.