2014 USC Men's Water Polo Outlook|
Sept. 2, 2014
Jovan Vavic knew it was coming. The "rebuilding year" is here. Gone are five All-American seniors from the 2013 roster, taking with them a combined grand total of 18 NCAA Championship rings. Gone are USC's all-time top scorer, an Olympian goalie and three more of the most talented Trojans to date.
So why isn't Vavic worried? Every other coach in his position would be playing the "one game at a time" card. Why is he already happy to start a conversation about winning another NCAA Championship? USC has won six in a row, sure, but isn't this a dreaded "rebuilding year"?
"We really aren't thinking about rebuilding," Vavic asserts. "When you have this many good players it would be stupid not to talk about winning. I think we have a team that can win a championship."
Yes, water polo fans, consider the Trojans rebuilt. Rebuilt, remastered, and already ready to win. A huge group of newcomers comprise Vavic's master stroke, which puts the finishing touches on a USC roster that also boasts a set of returning leaders lined up for starring roles.
"This could be the best recruiting class we've ever had," Vavic said of his cast of 22 newcomers, of which he's already tabbed several as impact players right out of the gates. "We've never had this many guys who can play immediately. When you add those guys to our core of returning players, I don't see why we wouldn't talk about winning.
The Trojans are stocked at every position as they set up their defense of six consecutive national championships. Last year, USC won the MPSF Tournament title and went on to beat Pacific in overtime to claim the 2013 NCAA crown for a 28-4 overall finish. Nick Bell, Rex Butler, Mac Carden, Kostas Genidounias, Max Hurst-Mendoza and Marc Vonderweidt all return from that 2013 NCAA Championship roster, with added reinforcements coming from every angle with this new class joining the ranks.
"Our returning guys know how to play together, and the younger guys are respectful of their experience," Vavic said. "We knew that this would be an important class because it's a group that will be carrying us the next four years. We spent time picking the right guys.
"I think we have all the pieces to win another championship. We have the best player in the country in Kostas Genidounias, the best goalie in the country in McQuin Baron, and the best centers in the country in Mac Carden, Max Hurst-Mendoza and Lachlan Edwards. We also a duo of two of the best lefties in Rex Butler and Grant Stein. And then we have very good defenders. We have great speed and we're very athletic. We are even bigger than the last couple years. We are just young. But when you have young teams at times it can be an advantage because they forget to think about being afraid."
Quite clearly, it will be the USC opponents who should be afraid, with each spot in the pool balanced by youth and experience for the Trojans. The only position dominated wholly by freshmen is in the cage-- previously occupied by Olympians Joel Dennerley and James Clark for the past six seasons. And yet Vavic is as confident in his goalies as anywhere else. McQuin Baron looms large as the starter, bringing in his 6-foot-9-inch frame fresh from a summer of experience with the U.S National Team. The Trojans could well tag-team the cage, too, as the goalie corps is solid down the line. Ben Goncharenko and Steven Michaud are both standout goalies in their own right and stand to see time in the cage as well.
"I think we are better in the cage this year," Vavic said. "McQuin is already as good as James (Clark), but Ben is not very far behind. And Steven is also very impressive."
Every day in practice, that trio will be tested by some of the biggest guns in the business. Senior All-American Genidounias comes into his final year at Troy ranked No. 4 on USC's all-time scoring charts. The Cutino Award finalist's all-around talent is undeniable, but he's only part of the story in USC's offensive onslaught. Senior lefty Butler balances out the attack on the opposite side of the pool. Carden and Hurst-Mendoza are proven forces at set. Bell and Vonderweidt also wield dangerous shots of their own from the perimeter. Meanwhile, several more high-powered Trojans have been waiting in the wings for their time to shine. And those are just the faces fans have already seen in the water last year.
"We have guys who are hungry. Now it's their turn. Guys like Luke Felton, Charlie McBee and Andrew Silvers are contributing now as well," said Vavic, who also has Chase Borisoff, Mitch Embrey, Joe Nelson, Gerrit Hill and Liam Burke coming off of redshirt seasons. "Our program is all about competition, and they understand it. There's no jealousy. They all get along. We have a good group of guys and it's a hard-working group. They are really self-motivated, and when you have guys like that it's fun to coach.
"Bringing in a big group of new players is a challenge. And it's fun. It's fun to see a new group of guys and what you can do with them. We have so many different options and opportunities to be dangerous in so many areas."
With 22 newcomers total, there are plenty of options indeed. Vavic already has tabbed eight or nine of those freshmen for immediate action. Team USA goalie Baron has the starting nod in the cage, but he's not the only newcomer with experience in international waters. Four players from four different countries have arrived from overseas to join the Trojans this year. Australian National Teamer Lachlan Edwards is poised to post up for the Trojans, following in the footsteps of another Aussie two-meter man -- All-American Jeremy Davie, who played four years and won four titles as a Trojan. Mihajlo Milicevic comes to Troy from Serbia; Lazar Pasuljevic hails from Montenegro; and Matteo Morelli joins the Trojans from Italy. Vavic is eager to involve each of them in his 2014 game plan.
"Edwards could be the best two-meter man we've ever had. I really like him. He can move in the water and has excellent speed. He's a very good defender and he really understands the game of water polo," Vavic said as he highlighted his new internationals. "Lazar is a very intelligent utility player who knows how to pass the ball the right place at the right time," Vavic said. "He's a good defender, an excellent soldier. Matteo is similar to Lazar but with even more speed. Lazar is fast but Matteo is faster. He's one of the most intelligent players on the team, and a good defender. Mihajlo comes form the best water polo school in the world, and he was one of the younger players on the Serbian team that won Junior Worlds. He's a great two-meter defender, and we really need him. He's strong and smart and also a good driver and post-up player."
Adding to the depth charge in the new class are a set of solid stars from more local waters. In addition to goalies Baron and Goncharenko, California has produced some mighty field players to bolster the Trojan cause. Bryce Hoerman, Grant Stein and James Walters headline that crew, which offers up some impressive flexibility and skill in which Vavic already has early confidence.
"We have a good young group of guys," Vavic said. "I think we are an excellent team. It depends how quickly they learn the system, but we are a good counterattack team and are fun to watch.
"Bryce is a good defender with great speed and very smart. Grant is one of our fastest players who sees the pool really well. He's similar to Kostas as one of the better passers out there. And James is one of our strongest players physically. He's also fast, he can defend and he can post up. He's also a good shooter and will be dangerous in the counterattack. We also have a few other guys -- Jake Sanders, Murphy Slater, Chase Koplow and Brock Hudnut -- who are not far behind the other guys who will be playing a lot. The biggest thing with youth is are they going to play scared or play free? There are so many things you are able to do with it. We are young, but we are very good."
Jovan Vavic is a man who knows what he likes, and he knows he likes to win. It bodes well, then, that Vavic has already affirmed: "I really like this team a lot."