2014 USC Women's Water Polo Season Outlook
Feb. 7, 2014
A wise man once said, "Winning is contagious."
That man would know.
That man is Jovan Vavic.
And that man is certainly showing signs of another severe case of victory fever.
His Women of Troy fought through the longest NCAA title match on record last year, winning their fourth national championship in a game that stretched through overtime and all the way on to triple sudden-death. USC was a long way from home for that one, hauling the 2013 NCAA trophy back to Troy from Boston.
That feat not only wrapped the year on a winning note, it sent the entire USC squad home with a new strain of Vavic's victory fever.
Everybody knows nothing soothes the soul like home cooking, and it just so happens that USC will spend the two biggest weeks of water polo action in home waters this year. The Women of Troy play host to both the 2014 MPSF Championships as well as the 2014 NCAA Championships, introducing the water polo world to the brand-new Uytsengsu Aquatics Center while also setting up their own defense of both tournament titles won last season. It's a prescription for success that the fired-up Trojans most certainly aim to fill.
"When you win a championship, you can look back and think how hard it was to do, or you can look back and remember how great it felt to win," USC head coach Vavic said. "These women had been dying to win a championship, and last year they did it, and now they want more. They want to feel it again."
The USC women have also seen the repetitive success of the men's program, which, also under Vavic, has strung together an unprecedented six consecutive national championships. The Women of Troy have matched the USC men with championships in back-to-back seasons four times now (1998-99, 2003-04, 2009-10 and 2012-13). Their motivation for 2014 is unquestionable. Their talent is already exceptionable. And experience will likely prove to make them unstoppable.
The 2014 Trojans return five starters from the last national championship team. NCAA Tournament MVP Flora Bolonyai -- an Olympian and a three-time All-American -- is the undeniable backbone of the team as the Trojans' steadfast goalie. She returns as one of five All-Americans back in the water, joined by fellow senior All-Americans Kaleigh Gilchrist, Kelly Mendoza and Madeline Rosenthal. Junior Monica Vavic returns as another All-American as well as the Trojans' top scorer and MPSF Player of the Year last season.
That entire group gleaned even more key experience in the offseason, playing internationally throughout the summer along with several other Trojan teammates. Bolonyai won a bronze medal with Hungary at the 2013 FINA World Championships. Gilchrist, Mendoza and Vavic, as well as juniors Colleen O'Donnell and Eike Daube, all spent time with the U.S. National Team. Daube and Vavic combined forces for gold with the U.S. Junior National Team at the FINA Junior World Championships, while Jayde Appel pulled double duty in representing Australia at both the senior and junior World Championships. She'd bring home a World Championship silver medal from Barcelona, where Bolonyai picked up her bronze medal. The international standout list goes on. Back from training with the German National Team is junior Jennifer Stiefel, and new to the Trojan roster this season are the powerful sister act from Greece, Ioanna and Stephania Haralabidis.
"Having these girls with their national teams and getting extra experience was really important," Vavic said. "Being with the best of the best gives you confidence that you can play at the highest level. Confidence in sports is so important."
That experienced and confident core is just another reason that the Women of Troy opened the 2014 season picked No. 1 in the conference and the nation.
"Success is always dependent on how good your defense is going to be and if you have enough offensive power to score goals. We have the best goalie in the nation, so it's deservedly so that we're number one.
"We return a great bench. We're a deep team with lots of weapons. It's a dangerous team."
Bolonyai, whom Vavic purports is the best goalie in the collegiate game right now, enters her senior season needing 196 saves to take over as USC's all-time career saves leader. Considering she's pinned up no fewer than 209 saves in each of the past three seasons, she stands to ink her name in yet another place in the Trojan history books this year. Vavic is duly impressed with the support that Bolonyai will have this year as well. Not only are backup goalies Alegra Hueso and Melanie Slater proving to be strong in the cage, the Trojan field defense is in good shape as well.
Rosenthal, O'Donnell, Mendoza and Daube all boast defensive skill and savvy in the field. They also can be just as dominant at the other end of the pool. When the USC offense kicks into gear this year, opponents will be hard-pressed to stop the Trojans. Gilchrist (107 goals) and Vavic (116 goals) are already well into the century club in their USC careers, but the Trojans will pack more than just a one-two punch. Appel, Daube, Mendoza and Rosenthal all provided at least 20 goals last season, and plenty of reinforcements come in the form of the freshman Haralabidis twins as well as juniors Stiefel and Olivia Cummins and sophomores Natalie Lavinsky, Emilie Myers and Courtney Walters.
"We have one of the tallest and fastest teams out there," Vavic said. "Ioanna and Stephania (Haralabidis) are the whole package. They both have a great sense of the game. They have excellent quickness in the water; both are shooters, and they are also tough. They're going to be superstars.
"Jenny (Stiefel) has played polo all her life so she brings great instincts, and Olivia brings speed and quickness as a good attacker. For our sophomores, they've all done what we've asked and this year I think they really have a chance to contribute."
Joining Ioanna and Stephania Haralabidis in the Trojan freshman class are a set of newcomers that Vavic is also eager to get in the mix. Mikayla Tyler, Avery Peterson, Ellie D'Ambra, Nikki Stansfield, Nicola Welch and Lauren Esrig encompass a talented batch of Trojans entering their first season at Troy.
"Stansfield is a hard worker in the water; she's strong and fast and can post up and shoot the ball. Avery can play two-meter offense and defense and she just doesn't quit. Mikayla is a smart defender who understands the game, and Ellie is one of our smartest players," Vavic said of his newest members of the Trojan family.
"They all bring something. Overall the leadership on this team is excellent, and I like their chemistry and their desire."