2011 USC Men's Water Polo Outlook|
Aug. 31, 2011
There are other men's water polo programs with more trophies. Other coaches with more titles. But no men's water polo player or coach can boast four in a row. That's the plan. That's the prize. A fist of fingers filled with national championship rings to wear on graduation day.
USC has three players who have made that their 2011 mission.
Trojan seniors Matt Burton, Joel Dennerley and Peter Kurzeka were freshmen when USC won the 2009 NCAA championship. As sophomores, they again held the trophy high at the end of that season. Last year, as juniors, they led a USC squad picked to finish fourth in the conference to the top yet again. Now, with the stiff breeze of three straight national championships pushing them into their senior season at Troy, the trio aims to go out on top once again and, in doing so, become the first collegiate men's water polo team ever to win four consecutive national championships.
"Those three are solid as a rock," USC head coach Jovan Vavic said of Burton, Dennerley and Kurzeka. "I think we're all anxious to start the season. We've been talking about a four-peat and having this history being made. Everyone knows about it. We know we have a chance to do it. But we also know it's very important to enjoy the ride and go one game at a time. That's going to be the philosophy this season."
Entering his 17th season at the helm of the USC men, Vavic already made a little history for himself by being named the National Coach of the Year for three straight seasons after his Trojans proved the predictions wrong with a surge to the MPSF and NCAA championships in 2010. This year, the power of the Trojan roster has not gone underestimated. USC has been picked No. 1 in the preseason coaches' polls nationally and in the MPSF. And rightly so.
"There is no secret this year, we're the team to beat. We're returning the entire starting unit plus our top five subs from last year," Vavic said. "But we've been the team to beat many times before. It's not anything new to us. The real question is how we approach day-to-day training and how the guys enjoy the ride. Last year it was a fun season. Our youth brought lots of energy to us. New players like Toby (Preuss) and Mace (Rapsey) and (Jeremy) Davie and (Connor) Virjee and Nikola (Vavic) brought lots of energy not just in games but in training. They were a vey positive influence. The chemistry last year was amazing, and I think it's carrying over. This team is a very close-knit group. Our leadership did not change. That's the strength of this year."
The leadership core of Burton, Dennerley and Kurzeka is invaluable. Captains and All-Americans all, the senior threesome are the cornerstones of a supercharged blend of talent across the board. USC's top scorer as a freshman and an All-American as well, Nikola Vavic returns. More young power is generated from All-American Jeremy Davie, and fellow sophomores Mace Rapsey and Connor Virjee, who helped claim that third straight title in their first seasons of action with the Trojans, along with Tobias Preuss and Stephen Siri. More veteran talent comes in the form of Brian Boswell and Michael Rosenthal, members of USC's last two NCAA championship rosters.
And yet, even though USC has a massive group back for more, Vavic also has some new additions joining the ride this season, with goalie Ely Bonilla slated as a solid backup to 2010 MPSF Player of the Year and Cutino Award finalist Dennerley in the cage. Defense has been the backbone of USC's gameplan year after year, and the Trojans will stay in stride once again.
"We won the last few championships mainly because of a great defense, and that's not going to change. That's the focus of my coaching," Vavic said. "This team really understands the importance of it. All three of our top players are defensive specialists. All are defense first. As long as the rest of the players who are offensively oriented buy in and commit, we'll be tough to beat. We have guys right now who redshirted last year and some incoming freshmen who certainly are going to push our returning contributors."
Offensively, USC's top 10 scorers from 2010 are back in the water. That group accounted for 81 percent of USC's goal count last season. New guns are also in line to make a further impact as the Trojan depth charge expands for 2011.
"The depth and the talent is some of the best we've had. I think it's chemistry that made us most powerful," Vavic said. "I also remind them that what got us there and what got us to be champions is pretty simple. There's no secret to being a champion. You have to outwork people, in the water and out."