2015 USC Men's Water Polo Season Outlook|
Sept. 11, 2015
For the USC men’s water polo team, the 2015 season started last year. When the whistle blew on the 2014 NCAA Championship game, for the first time in seven seasons the Trojans were not the ones churning up the water in celebration of another national title. Instead, USC carried a second-place trophy back to the locker room. But when the Trojans emerged, they were carrying a new mindset, with jaws set in determination to make 2015 a different story.
Head coach Jovan Vavic has seen that determination before. His Trojans have reached the NCAA title match for 10 consecutive seasons, capturing seven championships during that stretch. Year in and year out, the expectations are the same, although the paths have been markedly different every time. This year, the Trojans are relying largely on a powerful pack of sophomores while also calling on the championship-savvy of their leaders.
For the first time in years, USC doesn’t have a one-man scoring machine who stands out above the rest. In back-to-back seasons, the Trojans saw the program scoring record broken — first by Nikola Vavic in 2013 and then by Kostas Genidounias in 2014. Those two powerfully prolific scorers were the backbones of the Trojan offense in their respective senior seasons. This year, however, the scoring record is decidedly safe, as no returning Trojan comes into the season with more than 43 career goals.
But if you think that USC will be lacking in firepower in 2015, you are gravely mistaken. If anything, the absence of a noted top gun means that opponents will have a harder time figuring out whom to target. Instead of relying on one big name to come through with the heroics, the Trojans are armed with an arsenal of attack-minded players that afford USC the ability to unleash a balanced offensive onslaught.
The last time that USC had this kind of off-the-radar offensive abilities was 2010, according to Vavic. That year, USC had no seniors on the roster, and still went on to capture a third consecutive NCAA championship. In 2015, USC’s standout veteran is Mac Carden, a redshirt senior who has been with the Trojans through three NCAA titles and four trips to the final. Fellow senior Gerrit Hill joined the Trojans as a transfer in 2013, and redshirt junior Luke Felton was a member of the 2014 NCAA Tournament roster. Aside from Carden, the only other Trojan with first-hand experience of playing in and winning an NCAA championship is junior All-American Nick Bell, who raised the 2013 trophy alongside Carden.
The knowledge that Bell and Carden have gleaned in their string of trips to the NCAA final pairs powerfully well with the vital experience that the youth movement of Trojans gathered in last year’s run to the title match. The No. 3 seed in the 2014 tournament, USC pinned up a semifinal upset in sudden death to notch a 10th straight appearance in the final. For the nine Trojan freshmen in the water, that journey is sure to pay dividends.
“I think we learned quite a bit from last season,” Vavic said of the 2014 campaign in which USC went 24-7 overall. “We had a great semifinal win and that was a big positive. The loss in the final hurt us, but we learned from that loss as well. We talked a lot during the offseason, and it seems now that the team is more physical and more hungry. They didn’t know what to expect last year but now there is more hunger.
“Our biggest strength is our depth. We have very good balance in terms of offense, and all these guys have an extra year of experience and the experience of getting to the NCAA final. We had nine freshmen last year, and we have added a few really good freshmen this year. We also have several guys who redshirted last season and are all competing for playing time this year.”
Three of those 2014 freshmen earned All-American status last season and are back for more along with fellow All-American junior Bell. Mihajlo Milicevic, James Walters and goalie McQuin Baron were All-American honorees after making a huge splash on the scene in their first seasons as Trojans. Baron set a USC record for single-season saves with 288 blocks logged in the cage last year. He’ll be joined once again in leading USC’s goalkeeping corps with sophomore Ben Goncharenko, with redshirt freshman goalie Steven Michaud also in the mix this season.
USC’s youth movement runs deeper as one takes into account the likes of sophomores Lachlan Edwards, Bryce Hoerman, Matteo Morelli, Lazar Pasuljevic and Grant Stein — all members of USC’s 2014 NCAA Tournament roster. Morelli was the most productive of the group last year, scoring 40 goals for the Trojan cause, just ahead of 34 from Walters, 22 from Stein and 31 from Edwards.
This year, Lachlan Edwards is joined by his older brother, Blake. The Australian brothers are reunited at Troy this season, with Blake Edwards joining the Trojan roster as a junior. Vavic anticipates his arrival on the scene as a boon in USC’s gameplan for 2015.
“Blake may arguably be our best player,” Vavic said of the newcomer. “One thing that this team needed last year was toughness and experience. He’s tough and he’s experienced. He’s a scorer, an excellent defender, and he’s fast. He’s a complete package.”
Vavic also welcomes the addition of a set of true freshmen whom he believes will factor in immediately as well. Zach D’Sa, Nick Lavayen and Nick Silvers are in line to considerable playing time this year. So, too, is Vavic excited about the activation of a few players who redshirted last year, namely Murphy Slater, Tristan Reinhardt and Chase Koplow, as well as the marked improvement of redshirt sophomore Mitch Embrey.
“Really, everybody can play, and we have a lot of speed,” Vavic said. “We’ll be the fastest team out there. Our centers are fast and our guards are fast, so we want to be especially dangerous in our counterattacks. If we help each other, I think we can be an excellent defensive team, too. We have many guys who can post up and defend.”
All in all, as Vavic rounds the corner of his third decade at the helm of USC’s water polo dynasty, he remains as focused as ever. Collegiate water polo has not seen anything like the winning momentum that Vavic has built at Troy, and the Trojans have no plans to change that trend. This year, as every year, USC plans to add another NCAA trophy to its collection.
“We always expect to win a championship. The guys won’t be happy with anything else.” •