Oct. 16, 1997
No. 3 Trojans Challenging Once Again for the No. 1 Spot
By Roger Horne
After losing five starters, including three All-Americans, who led the USC men's water polo team to a second-place NCAA finish in 1996, many didn't think the Trojans could compete for a national title in 1997. But guess what? A third of the way through the season, USC is ranked No. 3 in the nation and challenging once again for the No. 1 spot.
"We've had other years when we lost a lot of top players," said USC co-head coach John Williams, who is in his 25th year in charge of the program. "This year, though, we have a little more coming back. We have more depth and more young people who can step in and play for us." So far, the redshirt freshman and sophomore-dominated lineup has led the Trojans to a 7-3 record (not including last weekend's Northern California Tournament at Stanford). That's all the more impressive when you consider that USC was without four likely starters for most of those 10 games. One of the injured players was senior driver Mateo Juric, who is a two-time third team All-American. He came back to play a bit in a 12-7 win at UCLA on Oct. 3, then scored two goals against California in a 10-8 loss on Oct. 12.
"I'm happy to be back," said Juric, who had a wrist injury. "This is the first time I've ever missed some games with an injury. But the team was great without me. The first game against UC Irvine (a 14-2 USC win), I was surprised by how we played. But if that's the way they were going to play without me, I'd be happy to stay on the bench and watch them win a national championship."
The Trojans will need Juric, however, to win a title. They'll also need to find a way to beat No. 1 Pepperdine (which handed the Trojans their first loss of the season in the championship of the Southern California Tournament) and No. 2 Cal (which has beaten the Trojans twice). "All of our losses were close," USC co-head coach Jovan Vavic said. "Our wins were pretty convincing over some of the top teams. I feel pretty good about how we're playing. We played so many games without Mateo and did well, but getting our top player back is definitely big." Said Juric: "We will be competitive to the end. A lot of people didn't think we would be, but we are a top team. Hopefully we'll surprise everyone at the end. The pressure's not on us, it's on some other teams." USC's most dominant player over the first 10 games was Marko Pintaric, a junior driver. The Zagreb, Croatia, native scored 30 points and made the adjustment to collegiate water polo much quicker than anyone expected. "We thought Marko would contribute and be an important player," Vavic said. "But we had no idea he would play like this. He has really carried the team in several of our games."
Senior driver Simun Cimerman (15 points) has also played well. Beyond that, it's a very young lineup consisting mostly of sophomores and redshirt freshmen.
Sophomore 2-meter man James Castle (18 points), a starter on the U.S. Junior National Team, has already scored more points than he did as a 1996 freshman, as has sophomore driver Allen Basso (11 points). Rounding out USC's double-digit scorers are redshirt freshmen Sean Hylton and Sean Stuart (10 points each).
Sophomore Richard McEvoy (68 saves) has started nearly all of the games as goalie, while sophomore Darin Smith (19 saves) has been a quality backup. The lineup hasn't even included sophomores Luke Daniels (wrist injury) and Bjorn Nordstrom (Mormon mission) and freshman Stever O'Rourke (broken arm), who was hit by a car on the way to a preseason practice. "Stuart, Hylton, J.J. Arden, all of the guys who have never really played at this level, what they've done has been amazing," Vavic said. "They're not getting pushed around. The sophomores are doing well, particularly Castle. You can't forget about Cimerman and Juric. It's very much a team effort."