Nov. 29, 2010

By Trevor Freeman

Special To NCAA.com


The invitations have been sent and the preparations are being made. Next Saturday, the light switch is officially turned on and the countrys premier water polo event commences. Four teams will converge on Spieker Aquatics Complex in Berkeley, California and one team will be crowned king. The group is comprised of the two-time defending NCAA Champions, a legendary powerhouse, a team making its fourth straight Final Four journey and a plucky underdog from Brooklyn, NY. Below is our preview of this great event.

Second-ranked USC versus twelfth-ranked St. Francis

Field Players


The best part of USCs attack is their depth. The Trojans can rotate waves of quality players and that ability to keep guys fresh was the key reason why they won the NorCal, SoCal and MPSF Tournaments. Nine players on USC scored twenty or more goals on the season which speaks to both their depth and balance. Those nine are Nikola Vavic, Peter Kurzeka, Mace Rapsey, Jeremy Davie, Matthew Burton, Tobias Pruess, Michael Rosenthal, Brian Boswell and Connor Virjee.

Boris Plavsic and Marko Gencic are the two most dangerous players in the St. Francis lineup. I think the real question for St. Francis heading into this Final Four will be their approach. I caught up with their Head Coach Igor Samardzija during the week and I asked him about the Terriers road to the Final Four and their mindset going into it and below was his response.

It was not easy considering where we were last year at this time. That's why the success is even bigger this time. There were people crying in the stands when we qualified. It was very emotional for the school, the program, everyone involved. We want to go out there and represent the conference well. The guys showed they can play under pressure. We displayed great mental preparation and toughness. There is no pressure on us in terms of us getting a result at the Final Four. That being said, we don't want to be tourists either.”

Goalie

Australian National team goalie Joel Dennerley is the centerpiece of USCs defense and he was outstanding all season long. Dennerley brings a championship presence to the cage as he was in the water for USCs past two NCAA titles. Look for him to be superb all weekend.

Nikola Djuric is one of the co-captains for St. Francis and was outstanding in their Eastern Championship victory over Navy. Djuric has been exceptional for all four years he was in college and I have him ranked as one of the top five keepers in the country. He is the heart of the Terriers and if he saves the first few shots taken on him, watch out.

Intangibles

In my opinion, this season has been Jovan Vavics finest work. USC seamlessly replaced a graduating class that included a 2008 United States Olympian and three other players with U.S. National team experience. In our season preview, we ranked them as one of the five teams to beat strictly because we had faith that Vavic could cobble together a competitive group. He ended up doing a lot more than that. USC is the top seed going into this tournament and they can taste another championship. USC has once again shown that you can never underestimate the heart of a champion.

The biggest intangible regarding St. Francis was their poor trip to the West Coast earlier this season. This week, I asked Coach Samardzija about their rough trip to California where they lost three games including dropping one to a now unranked Pomona-Pitzer squad and inquired about why this trip might be more successful. Below was his response.

We played that Pomona game as a practice. We were trying to use that as a way to deal with the jet lag and in the same token Pomona played outstanding. We played well for two and a half quarters against UC-Irvine and a couple breaks went against us in that one. We were still young at the beginning of the season and were not able to rebound from the jet lag. We will be leaving for this trip on Wednesday so this time we will be able to practice on Thursday and Friday which will help us be ready for Saturday.”

Top-ranked California versus eighth-ranked Loyola Marymount

Field Players


California arrives with a deep and balanced attack that is spearheaded by a dominant two-meter in Zach White and two outstanding perimeter players in Ivan Rackov and Luka Saponjic. Cory Nasoff, Brian Dudley and Zach Greenwood also bring a lot to the table for a Golden Bears team that won fourteen straight games prior to their MPSF Tournament semifinal loss to Stanford.

Tibor Forai, Edgaras Asajavicius and Ikaika Aki represent the core of the Loyola Marymount attack. Forai and Asajavicius are both outstanding scorers while Aki is somebody that does a little bit of everything for the Lions. Keep an eye on Forai as he is the player that I could see popping for a hat trick in this contest.

Goalie

If Loyola Marymount has an advantage in this game, it is between the pipes. While Justin Parsons is a good goalie and was outstanding upon earning the starting nod, he is not at the level of the player that will be across the pool from him. That is no knock on the U.S. Junior National teamer as he was superb in only giving up 6.94 goals per game.

Over the past four seasons, I think I have used every possible superlative to describe how good Andy Stevens is. I have followed NCAA water polo since I was a player in 1995 and if I had to choose one goalie over the last fifteen years to start a pressure game, it would be the U.S. National teamer. We have seen his actions in the water, below were his words when I asked him in our WWPA preview about why he thrives when the lights are brightest. If you read the below and still dont think Loyola Marymount has a punchers chance, then there is nothing else I can do to convince you.

I have to say going back to your first question. I played against Hungary. Any team we face during the season is not going to be as good as Hungary. That keeps me calm during games and lets me play with no care in the world. I try to stay calm and have fun, that's why you always see me laughing out there. I'm at home in big games. Going to those NCAA games and playing with the National team has given me a level of experience that allows me to not be fazed by big games.”

Intangibles

This is Cals first trip back to NCAAs since winning their thirteenth championship in 2007 and they are at home. The Golden Bears handled Loyola Marymount at Cal in early November and it will be interesting to see what adjustments the Lions make. The core of this LMU team has lost the past two seasons in the Final Four by a combined two goals. Being in those tight games on this stage should help them here.