Dec. 8, 2008

 

By Trevor Freeman
Special to NCAA.com

Winning an NCAA Championship is a heroic achievement that is the culmination of hard work, perseverance and sacrifice. However, when you do it the way the 2008 USC Trojans will be remembered for doing it, immortality is what you have accomplished. With their 7-5 victory over Stanford, the USC Trojans joined a club that includes the likes of the 1972 Miami Dolphins and 1976 Indiana Hoosiers.

Yesterday’s 7-5 NCAA Championship win was born a year ago in that same Avery Aquatics Center pool when the USC Trojans were defeated by the California Golden Bears 8-6. Rectifying that loss and winning the NCAA Championship was the mission and USC accomplished that.  How a team deals with the adversity of a tough loss is a key factor in determining a team’s character.  USC’s season was a direct response to that loss and it was incredible. From pulling out an opening weekend triple-overtime win over Loyola Marymount to an MPSF Tournament win off a last-second strike from Shea Buckner to falling behind Stanford 2-1 after the first quarter, USC showed the heart of a champion.   

The second quarter changed this game. Stanford jumped out at home behind first-quarter strikes by Drac Wigo and Jeffrey Schwimer and clearly had a hop in their step heading into the second stanza. USC’s trademark all season long was their smothering defense and they held the Cardinal scoreless in that second frame. Meanwhile, Shea Buckner (who had three goals on the day) found the back of the net for his second goal of the game while Jordan Thompson and Justin Rappel etched their names into history by each scoring their only goal of the game in that period. 

Up 4-2 at halftime, USC never looked back. The Trojans moved their lead as high as four goals in the second half and coasted to the finish line. Shea Buckner, Kyle Sterling and J.W. Krumpholz each scored second half goals for the championship Trojans. Perhaps the biggest offseason question that faced USC entering this season was how they would replace the departed Adam Shilling. That question was answered in a big way by Australian freshman Joel Dennerley who was outstanding all season long.  In the NCAA Championship game, the Aussie keeper made ten saves.

While this win ensures USC’s place in history they have an outstanding chance to touch the rarefied air that a basketball team like the mid-1950s University of San Francisco Dons achieved when they won sixty straight games. While USC is losing three great seniors in Arjan Ligtenberg, Jovan Vranes and backup goalie Ben Weil, they return the vast majority of their offensive core.  2008 United States Olympian and 2008 NCAA Tournament MVP J.W. Krumpholz, Matt Sagehorn, Shea Buckner and Justin Rappel will all be back to trigger the offense next season.  USC will also be returning Joel Dennerley in the cage. With those parts in place along with an outstanding coach in Jovan Vavic, one has to believe that USC might be better next season than they were in this year’s campaign. 

Stanford’s shining star in defeat was goalie Jimmie Sandman as he had ten saves for the Cardinal. Stanford will be back next year and perhaps this loss to USC will serve as a motivating tool for the Cardinal as they will possess great talent heading into the 2009 campaign. Sandman, Sage Wright, Janson Wigo and Drac Wigo were all juniors this season and will be looking to end their senior season with a flourish. The Cardinal will have to replace the offensive prowess that Will Hindle-Katel gave to them and that will be no small task.

The Trojans reached the NCAA Championship game by defeating Navy 14-9. USC was down 3-0 early in the first quarter but rallied back for the victory behind four goals from Matt Sagehorn and three from Justin Rappel. Joel Dennerley added thirteen saves in the USC victory. Stanford had to survive a monumental test from a tough Loyola Marymount team in the Final Four. The Cardinal were able to defeat the Lions 6-5 on a Jeffrey Schwimer goal with eighteen seconds left.  That game had everything you wanted as it joined last week’s USC-Pepperdine MPSF Championship tilt as being one of the two best college water polo games I watched this season. Drac Wigo scored two goals in that victory for Stanford and Jimmie Sandman had ten saves including a huge one on LMU’s Brian Beneditti with five seconds left in the game to preserve the victory. 

Loyola Marymount finished in third place in this tournament by defeating Navy 11-4. Its NCAA championship window remains open as sophomore Andy Stevens will still have two seasons remaining on campus. The WWPA Player of the Year and 2008 first-team NCAA All-Tournament team selection was once again sensational on the biggest stage. In the 6-5 loss to Stanford, Stevens did everything he could to win that game as he totaled fourteen saves on the evening.  One of them was a dramatic stop of a five-meter penalty shot from Drac Wigo with two minutes left in the game that kept the score 5-5.  He also had multiple one on one saves and turned in a performance that was better than what he had last year against USC in the Final Four. If there was ever an argument about who is the best goalie in the country, it ended in that game against Stanford. Stevens will enter next season as the best goalie in the country.

It is always tough to prognosticate the 2009 season this early in the going, however there are a few other teams that will be anxious to knock USC off of their perch. California was the former two-time defending NCAA Champion and the Golden Bears will be back with a vengeance next season as they fielded a young squad this year. Spencer Warden was dynamic for California this fall and should only be better in his senior campaign. UC-Santa Barbara is on the verge of having a special season as the Gauchos beat the Stanford Cardinal down the stretch of the season.  They will be returning a superstar in 2008 first-team All-MPSF pick Milos Golic along with a budding young prospect in Noah Smith. UCLA is going to be a trendy pick to make the Final Four next season as the Bruins will be returning a number of significant players including goalie Chay Lapin.

Last night and this weekend belongs to a team that chased down history. The last NCAA water polo team to finish the season undefeated was the 1992 California Golden Bears. That was a great Cal team that was coached by a legend in Steve Heaston and possessed such water polo greats as Gavin Arroyo, Sean Nolan and Chris Oeding. This USC team joined them in the history books and what has to be frightening is that this win might only serve as the beginning of what could be a two-year run of greatness.