Dec. 6, 2009

By Jon Marks
Special to

PRINCETON, NJ-- They did everything but cut down the nets or tear down the goalposts.

Winning a championship is special, no matter what the sport, no matter what the playing field consists of.  In this case, moments after a final desperation shot was blocked and time expired giving USC its second straight NCAA Men's Water Polo title, a 7-6 nail-biter over archrival UCLA, it was everyone into the pool.

Players. Coaches. Even fans coming from the stands.

Close your eyes and it could've been any Final Four.  The scene, the emotions were just the same.  A tight game winding down, pressure building on every possession, every shot.  

That clock seemed to be going a mile a minute to the Bruins, a team that barely had made it to the title game, needing a last-minute overtime goal to outlast Southern California neighbor Loyola Marymount. For the Trojans, trying to achieve the ultimate against the only team to have beaten them, it ticked more like an hour glass.

"You don't really have time to worry," said USC coach Jovan Vavic, who's now taken the Trojans to five championships. "The last seconds of a game all you're thinking about is the next play, the next shot. I liked our situation. We were up a goal with 15 seconds left. We had the best defense team in the country and we needed a stop."

Once they got it the celebration could begin.

For the Trojans, who finished the year 26-2, it was the culmination of a year-long quest.

"Every championship is absolutely unique," said Vavic, whose club quickly surged to a 3-0 lead on first-period goals by Peter Kurzeka, Shea Buckner and J.W. Krumpholz, then spent the rest of the day clinging to that lead.  "To me this one is the sweetest. This group of guys... I worked them hard.  We lost two games (to UCLA during the regular season) which was disappointing, but made us hungry.

"We train hard. We won 55 games and lost two (over the last two years).  People get complacent when you're winning like that.  In this sport you're not gonna get accomplishments with `please and thank you.' It's like wrestling, physical.  People get tired. They want to take a break. That's when some people will quit.  But these guys didn't quit on me.  They believed in the system and the coaching.''

And when that faith was rewarded with the trophy--which by USC tradition the youngest player on the team, freshman Michael Rosenthal, gets to take home with him -they knew it was all worth it.

"We've got 10 graduating seniors," said Jordan Thompson, voted the Tournament MVP, after scoring two goals, including a blind over-the-head shot that startled UCLA goalie Chay Lapin.  "When you spend that much time in the water with each other, it's even more special."

Even if it's been their goal from the outset. "I came here thinking I'd win four championships," admitted Krumpholz.  "We lost two, which made these two more special. I think we, as a group, bonded when we lost our first game (a 5-4 loss to UCLA back in September. We thought we were going to waltz through the entire season, and that stung us between the eyes. We sat down and figured it out. That's why we're here today."

Meanwhile, the rival Bruins were here mainly because of their shocking 10-6 win over the Trojans last week in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament, followed by Saturday's tense 9-8 overtime thriller over Loyola Marymount.  Following that game, Bruins coach Adam Wright predicted this one would go to the wire, the difference coming down to defense.

Prophetically, that's exactly how it played out, though Wright -- who was visibly upset by a shot by Cullen Hennessy appeared to goal over the line, but was ruled no goal, didn't particularly care he'd called it.

"I'd love to see that goal on video," said Wright, whose team finishes 23-7. "I thought the ball was clearly in. ... But (USC) played great. I thought we got off to a slow start, then we fought back the whole way.  We had a chance with 15 seconds left to tie it up. Unfortunately, we ran out of time."

Bruins junior Ben Hohl, who scored three goals, including the one that closed the gap to 7-6 with 2:13 left, felt naturally disappointed, but proud of his team's effort. "This is an experience I'll never forget," said Hohl. "We put everything we had into it all season long. ... Knowing we had a chance at the end to send it into overtime I think we can hold our heads high and just say it was their day."