Aug. 31, 2009


By Trevor Freeman
Special to

Twenty-nine and zero. That was the record USC posted last season in winning the NCAA title.

Five. That is the number of All-Americans returning from that special squad.

Greatest team in NCAA water polo history. On September 5th, the University of Southern California will begin chasing down that distinction.

There are subplots and stories to every single season, but in this case there is only one that matters. As good as USC was last season, they have a chance to be even better. The array of talent that returns to campus can only be described as jaw dropping. It begins with NCAA Player of the Year and 2008 United States Olympian J.W. Krumpholz. To say J.W. Krumpholz is the best two-meter player at the college level is not giving him enough credit as an argument can be made that he is one of the ten best two-meter players on Earth. His past two offseasons have entailed playing significant minutes on the United States National team and competing in both the 2008 Olympics and 2009 FINA World Championships. Joining Krumpholz and bolstering the attack are Matt Sagehorn and Shea Buckner. Both players were All-Americans who also spent time with our National team this summer as they competed in the World University Games. The other two All-Americans were Justin Rappel and Joel Dennerley. Rappel is arguably one of the five best lefties at the NCAA level and Dennerley is coming off a freshman year, which can only be described as fantastic. With what USC has coming back, another undefeated season could very well be in sight. I caught up with head coach Jovan Vavic and discussed not only the upcoming campaign but also the incredible ride of last season. Below is our interview.

You return five starters from your undefeated NCAA titlists and are a heavy favorite to repeat as champions. What do you see as your team's biggest challenge?

Staying healthy. The season for whatever reason brings injuries you cannot control. We need to stay smart in and out of the water. There will always be an opponent that will be hungry and try to match our desire to win.

J.W. Krumpholz, Matt Sagehorn, Shea Buckner and Joel Dennerley all played internationally this summer and are considered four of the best players in the nation. Can you tell us about them?

Those are our four best players and will be key to our success. They can all really carry a team and win one by themselves. All of our seniors are dangerous as Rappel, Artukovich, Sardo and Jordan Thompson give us good balance. Peter Kurzeka also traveled with the U.S. National team to a tournament in Germany during the spring. We have a deep team with more than one weapon.

When did you know that last season was going to be magical?

I had a feeling after we won the NorCal tournament. We could have lost to both Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount in San Diego. After we won the SoCal and NorCal tournaments, I knew the rest of the schedule was favorable. We were challenged in MPSFs as the Pepperdine game was very tough. We were held to one goal for thirty-one minutes and received a big challenge there. 

Who will test USC’s chin is the biggest question entering this season. The answer lies between the pipes.  Water Polo is not much different from hockey in that a hot goalie can steal a game. There are three teams boasting world-class goalies at the NCAA level and they stand as the most likely to spoil perfection.  The first two teams reside in USC’s conference and they are Stanford and UCLA.  While Stanford lost all four times they played USC last season, two of those losses were by one goal with one of them being in overtime.  Jimmie Sandman was the MPSF Co-Player of the Year and suited up for Team USA in the World University Games.  His presence in the net combined with the outside play of Sage Wright and the Wigo Brothers make the Cardinal the most likely threat to perfection.  The second team is UCLA.  I believe that Chay Lapin will be out to prove that he belongs in the same class with Jimmie Sandman and the next goalie we will be talking about.  This is Lapin’s senior year and he will be leading a dangerous squad that has key players such as Jacob Murphy, Cullen Hennessy and Ben Hohl returning.  UCLA also brought in an outstanding freshman class that includes United States Junior National team players Josh Samuels, Griffin White and Chris Wendt.

The third squad that can test USC’s chin is a team that almost ruined last year’s magical season in its third game.  USC beat Loyola Marymount 10-9 in triple overtime on that day.  Andy Stevens pitched a shutout in the third quarter of that game which enabled the Lions to get back into it and he is the reason why Loyola Marymount is our third team most likely to test the Trojans.  The measure of a ballplayer is how he performs when the lights are on and no goalie plays better when it counts than Andy Stevens does.  Stevens was the WWPA Player of the Year and also suited up for Team USA in the World University Games.  His ability to play well when the lights are on first demanded attention two years ago with ten saves (including a five-meter stop) in the Final Four against USC.  The big-game credentials were further bolstered by a fifteen-save masterpiece in the WWPA Championship game win over UC San Diego.  However, both of those performances pale in comparison to what Andy Stevens submitted in a 6-5 Final Four loss to Stanford.  Quite simply, Stevens turned in the best game I have ever seen by a goalie in a Final Four contest.  He had fourteen saves including a dramatic stop of a five-meter penalty shot from Drac Wigo on that night.

Two teams that return the offensive firepower to be dangerous is California and UCSB.  The Golden Bears have a nice well-rounded attack that features a superstar in Spencer Warden.  They finished seventh in last season’s MPSF Tournament and will be hungry to prove that this finish was a fluke.  Wolf Wigo’s UCSB Gauchos will be in the equation as they return Milos Golic.  The All-American might be the most lethal scorer in the nation.

That all being said, USC is primed to make history.  They will enter each game they play in as the favorites.  That means the Men of Troy will be taking everybody’s best shot.  The talent is there to run the table once again.  USC is the complete team as they have depth, offensive diversity, a top-tier goalie and an outstanding coach.  Last season was an incredible run that had people ranking USC amongst the all-time greats.  This season USC has a chance to write the legendary chapter that ends all debate.