Water Polo Outlook for 1996
For each of the last three years, the USC men's water polo team has been so close to its first-ever NCAA title. But the Trojans had to settle for second place in 1993 and 1994, and despite holding the No. 1 ranking for most of 1995, they fell short of playing for the NCAA championship last season due to the change in the tournament's format.
This year, however, all eyes are focused once again on nothing less than a national championship. And with good reason.
The 1996 Trojans return nearly all of last year's team -- only losing one player (Neal Brockmeier) who saw significant playing time -- and a talented class of freshmen that redshirted last year will be added into the mix of a team that went 20-5 overall a year ago (5-3 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation), USC's best record since the NCAA Championships began in 1969.
"The last 3 years we've been right at the top, ranked first or second," said John Williams, who is beginning his 24th year as head coach. "Hopefully, everything will finally fall into place this year and we'll be able to push it over the top.
"It's a long season and there are a lot of games, but I think we have more depth this year and that will give more people a chance to get playing time. It will also take some pressure off of the starters who have to come out and do it every game."
Among the returners are a talented quartet of Croatians, all of whom earned All America honors a year ago: senior 2-meter man Hrvoje Cizmic (2-time first team All-American and second team Academic All-Pac-10), senior driver Marko Zagar (second team All-American and 1996 co-captain), junior driver Mateo Juric (third team All-American) and junior driver Simun Cimerman (honorable mention All-American).
The coaching staff will be looking for similar production from the 4, as they combined to score 79 percent of the Trojans' 278 points in 1995. Juric led the team with 68 points, Cizmic had 57, Zagar scored 53 and Cimerman had 44.
The Trojans have another All-American returning in senior co-captain Brendan Grubbs, a goalie who played in all 25 games a year ago and stopped 213 shots. The 1995 second team All-American and second-team Academic All-Pac-10 selection will be starting for his third season.
After that, there are a multitude of fine players competing for playing time.
"Only 6 players, besides the goalie, can be in the water, and we realistically have 14 or 15 guys competing for those 6 spots," co-head coach Jovan Vavic said. "Our biggest challenge will be to keep everybody happy, because we have so many good players. I love this because we'd much rather have this situation than to be forced to play only 7 or 8 people, like we have had to do the past two years."
Among the veterans challenging for a starting job and playing time include senior 2 meter men Aaron Wooler, Shad Wicker (Troy's Most Improved Player in 1995) and Alex Tahmoush, who scored 14, 12 and 6 points last season, respectively; and senior drivers Brennan Shum (4 points) and Dan Cherrie (2 points).
"We have 4 solid Croatian players who can do a great job, and combined with the other seniors, that gives us a really solid nucleus," Williams said. "When you add that to the young players coming off the redshirt year, we've got great speed and depth. Our championship goal will depend on how we put all the pieces in place and play as a team."
Seven redshirt freshmen are expected to make an impact in varying degrees: goalie Richard McEvoy, 2-meter men James Castle (USC's Most Valuable Freshman in 1995), Matthew Bohm and Bjorn Nordstrom and drivers Jonathan Hewko, Allen Basso and Luke Daniels.
A highly regarded class of 10 true freshmen are all expected to redshirt in 1996.
With all of the players listed above, it's evident that the Trojans will be returning with a great deal of firepower, so the coaches aren't too concerned about the offense. Where they would like to see some changes from last year, however, is on defense.
"The biggest question mark for this team the last 2 years has really been our down-in deep defense," Williams said. "Our 2-meter defense and our one-on-one driving defense were ultimately what proved to be our downfall in a couple of games that we lost last year."
It proved to be particularly crucial at the end of close games -- something the Trojans saw a lot of in 1995. The Trojans were 7-4 last year in games decided by 2 goals or less, including a 9-7 loss to UCLA in the semifinals of the MPSF Tournament that ended up costing them a berth in the NCAA Championships.
"We are already strong offensively," Vavic said. "We have great shooters, we have 2 or 3 guys that can score from the hole really well, we have great speed and we can be good from the fast break. If there is just 1 thing we need to improve on, it's our defense.
"Not that our defense isn't good, it just needs to be more focused. Once we start thinking about defense and we become a better defensive team, I think we won't have any weaknesses."
That might be a necessity for success considering the always-difficult schedule. The MPSF slate features UCLA, California, Stanford, UC Irvine, Pepperdine and Pacific, 6 teams that are always strong.
"The competition is going to be absolutely fierce," Williams said. "But we're looking forward to this season. We must remain focused on the job that we need to do, and then we'll be right where we want to be, in San Diego on Dec. 8 playing for the national championship."