Dec. 4, 2010

BERKELEY, CALIF. - By Jake Curtis

Special to

The University of Southern California reached the NCAA water polo title game for the sixth straight season on Saturday, but not before a fourth-quarter St. Francis rally gave the Trojans a bit of a scare.

No. 11 St. Francis scored four straight goals in the fourth quarter to reduce what had been a 9-3 USC lead to 9-7.

But the top-ranked Trojans replied with an insurance goal on the way to a 10-7 victory on the University of California-Berkeley campus.

USC (27-3) now goes for its third straight national championship. The Trojans meet either California and Loyola Marymount in Sunday's title game.

St. Francis freshman goalie Igor Mladenovic played an outstanding game, collecting 17 saves to keep the Terriers in the contest.

And USC coach Jovan Vavic admitted he was concerned when the Terriers (24-4) cut the margin to 9-7 with 4:25 still remaining."You have to be concerned unless you have no blood, and I have blood," Vavic said. "You could see their emotion was high, and we were going the other way. But the 10th goal was the biggest of the game."

That goal, with 3:02 left, was scored by Tobias Preuss, and came seconds after St. Francis has scored what appeared to be an eighth goal that would have closed the gap to one. But the apparent score was disallowed by a foul called an instant before the shot.

"I thought it was a goal, and I started celebrating," said St. Francis' Stefan Gencic, who had two goals.

St. Francis, located in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., is the only entry in the four-team finals not from California. The Terriers' players and coaches, though disappointed with the loss, were pleased by their effort and that they gave the No. 1 team a challenge.

"I am sad and happy at the same time," St. Francis coach Igor Samardzija said. "This is a big step for us. This is very emotional for us, to give the No. 1 team a competitive game. I'm proud of the team. Our goal was to stay in the game until the fourth quarter and make a final rush, and that's what we did."

USC led throughout the game, taking a 1-0 lead just 1:34 into the game on Michael Rosenthal goal.

The Trojans soon made it 2-0, and the margin grew to 4-1 after one quarter. A number of saves by Mladenovic kept the Terriers in the game.

"He was absolutely tremendous," Samardzija said. "Frankly, I had my doubts before the game whether he could perform under such pressure."

Samardzija had considered going with senior goalie Nikola Djuric, but his choice of Mladenovic paid dividends.

The Trojans held a 5-2 lead at halftime and then scored four goals in the third quarter. The last was scored by Connor Virjee with 1:23 left to give USC what appeared to be a safe 9-3 lead.

But Gencic scored from close range to close the gap to 9-4 entering the fourth quarter, and consecutive goals by Alexander Pantic made it 9-6 game with 4:43 left.

When Boris Plavsic scored for St. Francis just 18 seconds later, the emotion among the St. Francis players was apparent.

"At that point, I thought we would have that game," Gencic said.

But USC broke the momentum with Preuss' second goal, and USC was on to the title game.

"We were not sharp," Vavic said. "But I think that's because we are young and maybe a little nervous, a little tight. But you have to give St. Francis credit."