Nov. 25, 2008

 

by Trevor Freeman
Special to NCAA.com

In a weekend where two teams punched their ticket to the national semifinals and in a season where we have seen many great storylines, one stands out.  It involves a team and their quest for perfection.  Last season, I sat poolside and I watched USC lose to California in the NCAA title game.  I remember being at the postgame press conference, seeing the tears in the eyes of their seniors and the disappointment which was a second straight season of finishing in second place. 

Character is built in the way one deals with moments like that and it is showing in the way USC has taken care of business this season.  Not only is USC winning games big, but they are 5-0 in one-goal games including a triple-overtime win over Loyola Marymount and an overtime win over Pepperdine.

This week, I got a chance to speak with the head coach of the undefeated Trojans.  Jovan Vavic has been the head coach of the USC men for 14 seasons.  In that time, USC has won three NCAA championships.  Vavic is also the head coach of their women’s team and led the men’s and women’s team to NCAA titles in the same school year twice.  We discussed this year’s team and what happened last season. 

Do you feel there is any added pressure carrying an undefeated record into postseason play?

Not really.  We are focusing one game at a time.  We have had so many high-pressure games already this season at Stanford and at the SoCal and NorCal Tournaments that I do not think this effects us.

I covered the national semifinals last year and saw firsthand the sting from losing the title game to California.  Has rectifying what happened there served to keep the team extra focused and motivated heading down the stretch?

I think so.  When you come so close two times in a row, you see how those little things can change a game.  The majority of our team were freshmen and sophomores.  I think as they matured they have learned how to handle these little things better.

Can you tell me a little bit about Matt Sagehorn and what makes him the great player that he is?

Matt is very fast.  He is also a great outside shooter and is just explosive.  Some players can do some things well and other things not so well.  Matt does everything well.  He took last semester off to train with the National Team and that helped him as a player.  Matt has really improved defensively.

Speaking of the National Team, how has the Olympic experience helped J.W. Krumpholz as a player?

J.W. is more poised from his Olympic experience.  By training with those players and playing in the Games, he has gained even more confidence in his abilities.  J.W. played very well in key matches in the Olympics.  Two things he has really gained from that experience is a better understanding of his role and how to take advantage of defenders.

Shea Buckner is another big-time player on your squad.  Can give us a little insight into what makes him an outstanding player?

Shea also trained with the National Team and has matured in many areas.  He is a great two-meter defender and an excellent outside shooter.  He has converted many key goals for us this season.

Two freshmen who have been playing key roles for your team are Joel Dennerley and Peter Kurzeka.  Why have they been so successful this early in their careers?

Both players are mentally tough.  Joel is excellent in high-pressure situations.  Because he is 21, he is very poised and mature.  Joel played in big games with the Australian Junior National Team which made him ready to step in and succeed for us.  He is great at game preparation.

Peter has always been the best player on whatever team he has been on.  Now, you can say that about a lot of guys on our team but Peter is different.  He has a quality that is difficult to teach.  He knows how to lead and is also a great outside shooter.

Finally, can you tell us a little bit about your senior class and what they have meant to your program?

Arjan Ligtenberg and Jovan Vranes have been the backbone of our defense this year.  Them along with our backup goalie Ben Weil have been great leaders and a class act for their entire four years here.  I'm not sure if you know this but those three guys have a career record of 95-6.

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Two national semifinal spots were on the line this weekend as the WWPA and CWPA staged their tournaments.  We will begin our look at the national scene with the WWPA as many have been touting Loyola Marymount as a team that could find its way into the NCAA title game on the first Sunday of December.  The eighth-ranked Lions took on the ninth ranked Tritons of UC San Diego for the WWPA Championship and it was another classic.  Loyola Marymount needed fifteen saves from Tournament MVP Andy Stevens and three clutch fourth-quarter goals by Tibor Forai to win a 12-10 thriller over UC San Diego.  Forai ended up with five goals on the day and they needed all of them as UC San Diego gave the defending WWPA Champions all they wanted.  A.J. Kotanjian scored five goals in defeat for the Tritons.  

Eighth-ranked Loyola Marymount got to the Championship game by smoking Pomona-Pitzer 12-3 and then upending Santa Clara 12-8.  Sophomore Andy Stevens (who also captured WWPA Player of the Year honors earlier in the week) had sixteen saves and second-team All WWPA-performer Tibor Forai scored five goals in the two victories.  Ninth-ranked UC San Diego got to the finals by defeating Claremont-Mudd Scripps 24-8 and UC Davis 10-9.  Jeff Hunt’s goal with 4:29 left was the difference in the UC Davis game. 

The United States Naval Academy advanced to the NCAA Final Four with their 9-6 victory over Princeton in the Eastern finals.  Tournament MVP Mike Mulvey and Kevin Bell each scored two goals in the Navy win.  Down 5-3 in the third quarter, Navy woke up and proceeded to outscore Princeton 6-1 for the remainder of the contest.  Navy’s championship win marks the first time a team has won three straight Eastern titles since UMass did it in 1993-1996.  This is the ninth overall Eastern Championship won by the Midshipmen.  The win has to be particularly sweet for the Middies as they were not the favorites this time around.  Navy entered this tournament having lost the Southern Division title to Princeton and had a tougher road to the championship because of that. 

Fourteenth-ranked Navy got to the fginals by defeating tournament favorite St. Francis 12-11 in sudden death overtime.  Freshman Kyle Wertz scored the game-winner in what was a hard-fought affair.  This game was rife with controversy as the officials played a key role in this contest.  St. Francis Assistant Coach Carlos Omana and St. Francis’ best player and Northern Division Player of the Year Nemanja Pucarevic were both red carded.  To put Pucarevic’s red card in perspective, it was probably as controversial as the Zinedine Zidane 2006 World Cup red card except it was viewed on a smaller stage.  Thirty-seven ejections were awarded in the contest as well.  For those not familiar with the sport of water polo, that amount of ejections being called is extraordinary.  This game was a physical encounter between two rivals that will be discussed at length for the next couple of years. 

“The Big Splash” was this weekend at Berkeley.  Not only was a win in water polo’s greatest rivalry on the line but for third-ranked Stanford a second place finish in the MPSF and corresponding second seed in the MPSF Tournament was at stake.  Drac Wigo scored three goals including one with 1:21 left in the contest to give Stanford a 9-7 lead.  Stanford was then able to hold on for a 9-8 win.  Alex Pulido chipped in two goals and Jimmie Sandman had nine saves in the contest.  In the loss, Trent Calder scored three times and Ivan Rackov found the back of the net twice for the Golden Bears.  Cal was able to bounce back the next day by beating Pacific 10-7.  This win moved California to 4-4 in MPSF play which clinched Cal the fifth seed in the upcoming MPSF Tournament.

It was Senior Day in Malibu and fifth-ranked Pepperdine came through with their biggest victory of the season.  The Waves took the game over in the second period as they outscored UCLA 3-1 to grab a 6-3 halftime lead.  From there, Pepperdine successfully kept the second-ranked Bruins at armslength the rest of the contest.  Pepperdine’s seniors were outstanding in the game as Grant Miller, Mat MacDonell and Adam Hewko combined for six of Pepperdine’s nine goals.  Freshman keeper John Hahn outplayed Chay Lapin as well as Hahn had twelve saves versus Lapin’s four.  This victory was huge for Pepperdine as they moved to 6-2 in MPSF play and locked up the third seed at the upcoming MPSF Tournament with this win.  UCLA’s loss dropped them to 5-3 in MPSF play and the fourth seed in next week’s MPSF Tournament.  They will be facing off with California in a game that will definitely be worth the price of admission.

Seventh-ranked Long Beach State also scored a key win over the weekend as they defeated UC-Irvine 7-4.  It was Senior Day in Long Beach and Ash Blythen scored two goals in his last appearance in front of the Long Beach crowd.  Derek Wiebe-Bailey had eleven saves in the victory as well.  This win clinched the seventh seed in the MPSF Tournament for Long Beach State which means they avoid USC in the first round.  

Player To Watch

Mike Mulvey, Navy, Sr.:  Mulvey eclipsed the 200 goal and 300-point mark for his career over the weekend in leading Navy to their third straight Eastern Championship.  His efforts on the weekend resulted in him being awarded tournament MVP.  In my opinion, Mulvey is a first-team All-American.  His performance this season was better than last season.  More of the workload both offensively and defensively fell on his shoulders this season and he handled it beautifully.

Contest To Keep An Eye On

The MPSF Tournament is taking place in Malibu this weekend and there are essentially two berths on the line.  The winner of this tournament garners the automatic bid and what happens next weekend will also go a long in way in determining who will take the lone NCAA at-large berth.

USC is the obvious favorite and should get past UC-Irvine in the first round.  The semifinals are where they should see their first test as they will play the winner of UCLA-California.  That UCLA-California game will be a monster.  These are two of the best five teams in the country and both harbor NCAA aspirations.  I expect that game to be an absolute nailbiter.  On the other side of the bracket, Stanford will play Long Beach State in the first round.  That is no walk-through as Long Beach State has the talent to pull an upset in that game.  Tournament host and third-seeded Pepperdine will play the Gauchos of UCSB.  Those two teams played on Nov. 16th and the Waves won 10-9 on an Adam Hewko shot with 2:26 left.  Look for their game at MPSFs to be another close affair.