by Trevor Freeman
Special to NCAA.com

“Somebody needs to win this game but nobody deserves to lose.” NCAA.com announcer Chris Dorst said those words last night and I am not sure if there has ever been a sentence that more accurately described a contest that transpired. Last night’s championship tilt between USC and California had drama and tremendous individual efforts mixed with an incredible backdrop. In the midst of a downpour and in front of a packed house, the USC Trojans strolled into California’s house and won their third straight NCAA Championship in overtime by a 12-10 count.

Heading into this game, I was convinced that USC had better depth and offensive balance while California had more top-end talent. That depth was on full display for the Trojans as seven different players scored in their victory over the Golden Bears. USC’s leading scorer was one of their remaining holdovers from last year’s championship squad as Peter Kurzeka ripped the net four times for the Trojans. Nikola Vavic, son of USC’s phenomenal head coach Jovan Vavic, was also spectacular as the freshman sensation netted a hat trick in the Trojan win.

After two straight NCAA Championships, there were many who doubted that USC could get back to this moment so quickly after graduating superstars like J.W. Krumpholz, Matt Sagehorn, Shea Buckner, Justin Rappel and Jordan Thompson. That was evidenced by the fact that this team began the season with a preseason ranking of fourth. What this victory firmly taught us is that you not only never doubt the heart of a champion but you also never underestimate coaching greatness. What Jovan Vavic did this season with USC is his finest work. The only players on this current championship team that were major contributors on the past two are Kurzeka, goalie Joel Dennerley and Matt Burton. Outside of those three, Vavic took a blank canvas and crafted an incredible masterpiece.

USC may have started last season in the fourth spot in the rankings but that will not be the case next season as Jovan Vavic’s squad will undoubtedly be preseason ranked first in 2011. The Trojans return everybody from this year’s team and will be a heavy favorite to win their fourth straight NCAA title.

For California, this loss is a heartbreaker. There are no words to describe the agony that is losing the national championship in your home pool. This was a team that expected to be here as the Golden Bears carried a preseason No. 1 ranking into this campaign. While California will lose a couple of great seniors in two-meter Zach White and Brian Dudley (who combined for six goals in the loss to USC), the Golden Bears will return a strong roster that is headlined by Ivan Rackov, Luka Saponjic, Cory Nasoff and goalie Justin Parsons. Parsons in particular had an outstanding Final Four as the freshman made a couple crucial fourth-quarter saves against Loyola Marymount in the semifinals along with a spectacular game-saving block at the end of the fourth quarter on a power-play try from USC’s Mace Rapsey in the finals.

The third-place game pitted Loyola Marymount and St. Francis. After losing a 7-6 heartbreaker to California, Loyola Marymount showed a lot of character in defeating St. Francis 9-7 in the third place game. Loyola Marymount jumped on the Terriers early and controlled the game for its entirety. Tibor Forai scored five goals in the first half to key LMU’s initial surge. Andy Stevens notched 15 saves in his final collegiate game and gave way to his backup with LMU up 9-5 in the fourth quarter. In defeat, Marko Gencic scored a hat trick while Nikola Djuric had 10 saves.

For Loyola Marymount, this tournament wraps up what has been a great career for star seniors Andy Stevens, Tibor Forai and Ikaika Aki. These three guys were the cornerstones of four NCAA Final Four runs. Having had the chance to meet both Stevens and Forai, I have to say that the NCAA is losing two student-athletes that were not only incredible in the water but high-character guys outside the pool. In Stevens, LMU also loses a goalie that has been the finest at the NCAA level for arguably the past four years. The United States National teamer once again had an exceptional tournament with 27 total saves and as always his performance included a highlight reel one. His stoning of Cal’s Ivan Rackov on a five-meter penalty shot to end the first half of their Saturday contest ranks right there with his five-meter stop of Drac Wigo two years ago at the Final Four and an incredible counter save against UCLA in the 2009 edition. With the losses of these players plus others, it will be interesting to see if Loyola Marymount can find their way back to the NCAA Final Four as UC-Davis will be returning a strong roster in the WWPA which will include two-meter Aaron Salit who was first-team All-Conference and is an absolute load in front of the cage.

St. Francis played very well in their 10-7 loss to USC. The boys from Brooklyn did what many thought they had no chance of doing in making it a ballgame in the fourth quarter. The Terriers will be a favorite to not only get back to the Final Four but they could challenge for the title. St. Francis will be returning a loaded roster as they bring back lefty Marko Gencic, driver Aleksandar Pantic, the dangerous Filip Sasic and two freshmen who were outstanding all season long in goalie Igor Mladenovic (17 saves against USC) and Bosko Stankovic.

Who else might challenge for next year’s crown that wasn’t at this event? Pacific earned their highest national ranking since 1995 in the last month of this season and the Tigers are stacked heading into next fall. James Graham returns stars Goran Tomasevic, Balazs Erdelyi and Tom Koning along with goalie Alex Malkis. I would be surprised if they do not start the season ranked in the top three. While UCLA loses great seniors in Ben Hohl, Jacob Murphy and Emilio Viera, they will be bringing back a ton of talent which will include Cullen Hennessy, Griffin White, Josh Samuels, Cristiano Mirarchi, Brett Hays and Aimone Barabino. Stanford will be in the mix as they bring back an explosive scorer in Jacob Smith, Paul Rudolph and starting goalie Brian Pingree. Long Beach State could be a sleeper as they will return the bulk of their roster and that includes freshman phenoms Nick Rascon and Dan Matulis.

That being said, we have nine months to discuss who the contenders are for the 2011 crown. Tonight belongs to the champions and that is once again the Trojans of USC. Like a great boxer, the Men of Troy survived a few hard punches, won the rounds they needed to win and emerged from the ring with the championship belt still around their waist.