Sept. 8, 2010


by Trevor Freeman

After nine months of waiting, water polo season returned with a bang as the first weekend of play featured upsets and a top five team needing a late goal to stave off a stunner at home.  Pools were alive from San Diego to Annapolis and we will discuss the incredible action that comprised the opening weekend of play.
We begin this column though by sitting down with the coach of a team that has climbed that NCAA Championship mountain for the past two seasons.  This past week I spoke with USC head coach Jovan Vavic to discuss his squad and their chances for a three-peat.  Below is our interview.

Joel Dennerley is a member of the Australian National team and is your marquee returner. Can you tell us a little bit about what makes him effective?

“Joel is very athletic and has extremely long arms. The length of his arms is like that of a seven-footer. He also possesses great mental toughness and awareness in the goal.”

You brought in some outstanding talent. We noted your son Nikola Vavic in our preview column and also saw four new international players with Junior National type experience are arriving.  Can you tell us about the newcomers?

“Besides my son who is a lefty and will help, we added two additional lefties in Rex Butler who is an explosive player out of Coronado and Connor Virjee who is an outstanding two-meter player. We also brought in Max Mendoza who was a first-team All-CIF Division I player.  However, our strength will be our third-year players who are Brian Boswell, Zayne Belal, Michael Rosenthal, Cem Cerak, Forrest Monroe, Jon Leopold, Andrew Reego, Peter Kurzeka, Matt Burton and redshirt freshmen Stephen Siri and Andy Hayes. We did also add four new international players which included German National team player Tobias Pruess, Mace Rapsey who was a two-meter defender on Australia's Junior National team and Jeremy Davie who was one of the leading scorers in last year's Junior Worlds.”

What will be the biggest key for USC to challenge for and win a third straight NCAA Championship?

“We need to put all the pieces together, because the talent is there. How the young players who did not play a major role on the last two teams respond under pressure will be critical. If we have good chemistry, we could be very dangerous. We have been underestimated by the media as I would point out that we won the UCI Tournament this spring without any of the new additions.  Cal was there, Stanford was there, UC-Irvine and UC-Santa Barbara were there and we beat those teams.”

Going into this campaign, we were high on Pacific in our MPSF Preview column.  That is because we admired the program that James Graham has quietly been building and we felt that the Tigers were poised to make a splash in his third season at the helm.  Surprise was the only reaction that could be summoned when the first national poll came out and had Pacific ranked tenth, as our research did not indicate that there were nine better teams in the country.  Judging by the way Pacific played on Saturday, perhaps they were stunned as well because UOP showed up big in their opener and defeated a squad in sixth-ranked Loyola Marymount that many including myself feel have a chance to end this season as NCAA Champions.

The upset happened at the Triton Invitational and the leader was last season’s MPSF Newcomer of the Year in Goran Tomasevic.  The 6’6”, 245 pound Croatian was physically dominant in notching five goals for Pacific in their 9-7 victory over LMU.  He was supported by Hungarian freshman Balazs Erdelyi who found the back of the net twice.  The 6’5” frosh was highlighted in our MPSF preview as being a favorite for this year’s MPSF Newcomer of the Year honors and he did not disappoint all weekend.  Following their win over Loyola Marymount, Pacific also defeated eleventh-ranked UC-San Diego, nineteenth-ranked Air Force and La Verne.  While the loss to Pacific was not an ideal start for LMU, the Lions showed character in rallying back and winning their remaining games on the weekend which included a 7-3 triumph over eleventh-ranked UC-San Diego.  U.S. National team goalie Andy Stevens submitted a “that’s why he’s on the national team” performance as he compiled fourteen saves in the bounceback win over the host Tritons.  The Lions also defeated Air Force and La Verne on the second day of action.

Top-ranked California kicked off their season with a 14-4 win over seventeenth-ranked UC-Davis.  Eleven different players scored for the Golden Bears in a game that was never close.  UC-Davis scored the first goal of the game, but after that strike it was all Cal as the Golden Bears would score the next four goals and seven of the next eight to put the game away.

The UCI Invitational featured four power squads in third-ranked Stanford, fourth-ranked USC, fifth-ranked UC-Irvine and ninth-ranked Long Beach State.  Stanford, USC and Long Beach State cruised through their matches; however the opening game of the tournament almost proved to be a costly one for the home Anteaters.  Down 9-8 to twentieth-ranked Cal Baptist with 4:15 left in the fourth quarter, UC-Irvine rallied back with two late goals to pull out a 10-9 victory.  Nick Pfeil was the hero for the Anteaters as it was his goal with thirty-two seconds remaining that handed UC-Irvine victory in what was a hotly contested affair.

My favorite tournament of water polo’s opening weekend is the Navy Labor Day Open and this season’s edition featured a number of tight contests.  The best team at Annapolis was the host Midshipmen as they went 8-0 on the weekend.  The only tight game they played was against a veteran Fordham squad.  Navy rallied from a 9-8 deficit to pull out an 11-10 victory over the Rams.  Luke Baldwin and Jordan Carter each had a hat trick in the Navy victory.  The best story of the tournament though was Queens College shocking eighteenth-ranked Bucknell.  Once an Eastern power, Coach Or Gil got the Knights off to a tremendous start to the season as they knocked off the Bison 15-14.  Keep an eye on two newcomers in Lithuanian driver Algirdas Skukauskas and Serbian two-meter Nemanja Milijanovic.

Player of the Week
Goran Tomasevic, Pacific, Soph.:  The two-meter from Split, Croatia is one of the most physically imposing players at the NCAA level.  Here’s a little secret for casual water polo observers reading this article.  Most international players need a year to adjust to the NCAA game.  That Tomasevic won MPSF Newcomer of the Year honors in a year that he was still getting himself acclimated to the NCAA game means that his production level could be scary this season.  The five-goal outburst in Pacific’s season opening upset of Loyola Marymount could be the start of an incredible campaign for Tomasevic.

Contest to Watch
Fourth-ranked USC travels to sixth-ranked Loyola Marymount in a tremendous matchup of two teams that made the Final Four last fall.