BERKELEY, Calif. — In football, they storm the field. In basketball, they run on the court.
When Southern California wins the national championship, the redshirts and quite a few of their fans enter the pool en masse to celebrate with their team. On Sunday it was even more special than ever. Not only did USC beat arch-rival UCLA, the Trojans won an unprecedented fourth consecutive NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championship.
So when the final buzzer sounded on a 7-4 victory, USC and its faithful basically went nuts, splashing around for so long that UCLA finally left the deck at Cal’s Spieker Aquatic Complex without getting to shake hands.
That included veteran USC coach Jovan Vavic, who frolicked in the pool like a kid.
“It’s really sweet. It’s special,” said Vavic, who won his seventh men’s title at USC, the first in 1998. “When you spend so much time getting ready for a game, for an opponent, and in our conference it’s just so competitive. One or two losses here or there can basically take you out.
He talked about sleepless nights and the seemingly never-ending workload.
“It’s brutal,” he said. “We as players and coaches, if you don’t understand how brutal it is you’re not going to make it. At the end it’s just a huge relief and a great feeling.”
It felt even better for Vavic because for the second consecutive year he got to share it with his son, sophomore Nikola, one of USC’s seven different goal scorers Sunday. It was a quite a contrast, because a week earlier, UCLA beat USC in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation title game 10-9, getting goals from 10 different players that day.
For that matter, the teams split four games this season before Sunday with USC outscoring UCLA 34-31.
None of that mattered to UCLA.
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“We stopped their kind of tidal wave early. But then kind of in a flash, they get one at the end of the first (on Connor Virjee’s shot with .5 seconds left in the quarter),” third-year UCLA coach Adam Wright said.
The Bruins trailed 2-1 early in the second quarter when freshman Paul Reynolds stole the ball and got USC’s Forest Monroe given an ejection penalty in the process. Reynolds drove the left side, got close and then saw his shot deftly blocked by the ridiculously fast right hand of USC goalie Joel Dennerly.
It was not only a foreshadow of things to come – Dennerly, the future Australian Olympic goalie was named tournament MVP after his 14-save performance – but USC responded by coming down to the other the end and creating its own man advantage. The Trojans went up 3-1 on the goal by Vavic 58 seconds into the period. Dennerly came up with another big save and when USC took advantage of another power play, this time capitalizing on a goal by Stephen Siri, UCLA had to play catch up the rest of the way.
At halftime it was 5-2, USC led 6-3 after three quarters and was up 7-3 when UCLA closed the scoring with 4:19 left. USC was dominate in power-play situations and then there was Dennerly, the great wall from Australia.
“Their defense was really good. I have to give Dennerly a lot of credit, he made some great saves,” UCLA senior Cullen Hennessey said. “I’m sure he’s getting MVP. He should. They had a good all-around defensive effort.”
After Saturday, when a matchup with UCLA seemed imminent, the Trojans and Bruins were equally diplomatic. Finally Sunday, with his career over, USC senior Peter Kurzeka, USC’s leading scorer this season with 42 goals, admitted beating the crosstown rivals made it even more special.
“It’s amazing, considering I almost went to UCLA,” Kuzerka said. “My whole recruiting process I thought I was going there. Luckily I jumped ship near the end.”
Dennerley pointed out that USC lost to UCLA four times in his career, not that he was keeping track (*wink wink).
“Every game we played UCLA, starting when we were freshmen, we had team meetings before the game, just to put in everyone’s mind what it is, that it is a water polo game and it is a big game, but more importantly it’s the Trojans versus the Bruins. That’s enough said for us. We know exactly what it is and we talk about it all the time.
“That’s what we train for. We train to beat the Bruins every year and to play them in our last game, in the final, we couldn’t ask for anything better.”
All of that might pale in comparison to the emotions Vavic had in sharing the entire experience with his son. Nikola was USC’s top scorer as a freshman with 49 goals, but then decided last spring he didn’t want to play anymore. There are a lot of tough dynamics between father and son in such a highly charged atmosphere – especially with someone so outgoing as Vavic — but they’ve overcome that.
“This team is everything to me,” said Nikola, who finished this season with 31 goals – including four in the 17-4 semifinal victory against Princeton — second on the team.
“Ever since the beginning of the season we’ve had one goal and to see it all play out today is really special.
“It’s a great experience,” he continued, and then looked at his dad. “Playing with (him) is definitely a challenge for me to keep my head and not get frustrated. I’ve learned a lot, but it’s a really great feeling.”
“You know, there’s nothing in the world you love more than your children. He doesn’t understand. He will one day. But they don’t get it. So when you see them succeed, there’s nothing like it,” Vavic said. “To see him succeed twice, it’s more meaningful to me that he wins than me. I’m so proud and so fulfilled. There are no words. I can’t describe it. I’m very happy for my players as well, but having him share it together with all of us is unbelievable.”
And that’s worth celebrating.