2012 USC Men's Water Polo Season Outlook|
Aug. 31, 2012
The USC men's water polo team is looking to make thumb rings fashionable again.
There's no other choice, really, if all goes as planned in 2012. History's already been made as the Trojans became the first men's water polo team to win four straight national championships. The next challenge, obviously, is to be fashion-forward and slide on a fifth championship ring.
USC already has a crew of players who have been at Troy for the past four title runs. Now as redshirt seniors, the task at hand is making it a fist of five. And the Trojans certainly have the punch to make it happen.
Senior captains Matt Burton and Michael Rosenthal were freshmen in 2008, when the Trojans roared undefeated to the national championship. Since then, that pair -- along with fellow redshirt seniors Andrew Reego and Will Simon -- have experienced nothing but fairytale finishes every year.
Head coach Jovan Vavic has a lot to do with that trend. Year after year, he's crafted a legion of Trojan warriors, instilled with a dedication to the gameplan and to each other. As big names have graduated and passed through the program, gilded with championship rings themselves, new leaders have stepped into the paths blazed by those before them. Fresh talent takes shape and only grows more daunting under the direction and discipline of day-to-day battle. Vavic has created a powerful monster of a team. And that monster loves to win.
"We're expected to win," Vavic said of his 2012 team, which opens the season ranked No. 1 in the nation and picked No. 1 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation. "We are the favorite, and we have to learn how to deal with the pressure of being that team that's expected to win again. They definitely understand what it takes."
Back in 2010, when the Trojans were working on lobbing up a third straight championship to set up last year's historic push to four in a row, USC's NCAA starting lineup boasted five members of this 2012 roster. Fresh-faced freshmen in 2010, now-juniors Jeremy Davie, Mace Rapsey and Nikola Vavic were all three All-Americans last year, with Davie and Vavic also on the docket with First Team All-MPSF accolades. And as they now enter their final seasons at USC, Matt Burton and Tobias Preuss -- the other two returning starters from that 2010 championship team -- also boast All-American status.
The list goes on. Burton's co-captain Rosenthal notched All-American honors last year in the Trojans' run to the 2011 title and a 24-3 overall record, including a perfect 8-0 mark in MPSF action. Sophomore Kostas Genidounias secured his All-American status in year one at Troy. Meanwhile, USC has junior co-captain Stephen Siri and the rest of the talented Trojans roster also chomping at the bit to keep this USC bullet train pointed directly at a 2012 national championship.
The train won't have to go far, either. Both the 2012 MPSF Tournament and the 2012 NCAA Championships will be held in home waters for the Trojans. McDonald's Swim Stadium -- which is due to begin transformation into the Uytengsu Aquatics Center as soon as the national championship trophy is hoisted in the air -- will be the site of both postseason tournaments in 2012. And the Trojans are eager to defend their turf.
"I feel that it's something that will make us work harder," Vavic said of hosting the national championship. "We want to represent our university and our house. We want to perform the best we can."
A frightening amount of balance will certainly help. Gone are four-time NCAA champions Peter Kurzeka and Joel Dennerley, who finished their USC careers as two of the most decorated Trojans to date. Kurzeka was USC's top scorer in 2011, and Dennerley loomed large as the best goalie in the nation on his way to honors as the Cutino Award winner while he was already capped up for Australia on his way to the 2012 Olympic Games. Also lost for the season is redshirt senior Brian Boswell, a standout 2-meter man whose time in the pool has been cut short by medical issues.
The loss of Boswell and graduation of Kurzeka and Dennerley are hits to be sure. With Dennerley's Cutino pick, the Trojans claimed their third of the past four Cutino Awards, and with the firepower of Davie, Genidounias and Nikola Vavic on the loose for 2012, the Trojans are hot in pursuit of landing another USC athlete on that list. Just a goal behind Kurzeka on the scoring slate last season was Vavic, followed by Genidounias, Davie, Rosenthal and Siri -- all back in the pool for 2012. And back in London, Dennerley's Aussie Olympic team backup was James Clark, who has made his own move to Los Angeles from Down Under to take the reigns from Dennerley in goal. Clark and returning USC goalie Ely Bonilla present a formidable tandem in the cage for the 2012 Trojans, defying USC opponents to find any cracks in the defensive scheme this season.
After all, defense has always been the name of the game for Vavic, whose teams have led the nation in that category for years now. The knowledge gleaned from team to team has translated into an oppressive and successful lockdown on the defensive end of the pool.
That crew also is very clearly capable of producing goals at the other end, too. Plaga punched in 12 goals last year, and Rapsey and Burton have combined for over 100 to date.
Lefties are just part of the story. Factor in right-handed guns like Genidounias, Rosenthal, Siri, Preuss, Reego, Ivan Kustic, Zach Lucas and Marc Vonderweidt on the perimeter, and the inside game opens up for 2-meter threats such as Davie, Max Hurst-Mendoza, Mac Carden and Chase Watson to do further damage out of set.
The pieces are falling into place. The 2012 season is upon us, and the Trojan efforts to strive for five is underway.
"There is no way to do what we're trying to accomplish without going through the grind. You have to love the grind. I think that definitely we are going to be very strong again."
Watch your thumbs.