In a highly entertaining season of men's college water polo where veritable musical chairs has played out among the nation's top teams, four remaining squads have converged upon Palo Alto, California for this weekend's NCAA Championship.
With the University of Southern California just two wins away from their sixth straight NCAA men's water polo title you might find it hard to believe that this season has been the most balanced of the new millennium. Contributing largely to that parity is the University of the Pacific. Never considered a member of the traditional big four in men's college water polo, the Tigers spent several weeks as the top ranked team in the land.
While USC and Pacific earned the first and second seeds overall, Stanford and St. Francis Brooklyn had to take part in a new wrinkle to the tourney this year, play-in games. In an effort to expand the tournament, two more entries were added. One, an automatic qualifier to the winner of the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) and the other an additional at-large bid.
On Thursday, the two at-large games took place with Stanford, recipient of the second at-large defeating Whittier, the SCIAC champ, 20-3. That was preceded by St. Francis Brooklyn, automatic qualifier from the CWPA, topping UC-San Diego, automatic qualifier from the WWPA, 6-5.
It has all set the stage for this weekend in Palo Alto, where USC will take on St. Francis Brooklyn and Pacific will meet Stanford in the semifinals. A stage with two top seeds that couldn't have more different backgrounds. After years chipping away at the elite, Pacific rose up in 2013 and was a likely candidate to be at Stanford this weekend. USC is expected to be in these moments, they've appeared in the past eight NCAA finals, yet their tournament status was most definitely in doubt.
About two weeks ago the Trojans were left for dead, as much as a team can be that has rewritten the record books. On the heels of a controversial loss to UCLA, USC would find themselves the fourth seed headed into the MPSF Conference Tournament. The consensus was the Men of Troy would need to win all three games in men's water polo's toughest conference to have a shot at defending their crown. They did exactly that, dispatching of California, Pacific, and then Stanford in the title match.
"This group has been very tough, we have four guys on this team, [Jeremy] Davie, Nikola (Vavic), Mace (Rapsey) and (Connor) Virjee who played some major minutes as freshman. These guys are seniors they understand, it is never easy," said USC head coach Jovan Vavic. "The fact we were number four didn't mean anything, we still have to compete and still have to win to make it to NCAAs. I give my boys credit, they really stepped up."
Just that fast, USC went from the outside looking in to the driver's seat at this weekend's championship overcoming the type of adversity that Vavic says has been a part of every title run. Meanwhile Pacific found themselves in the third place game, edging a talented UCLA team by one to leave no doubt about their at-large selection. For just the second time in school history and first time since 1993, the Tigers earned a berth allowing their dream season to live on.
"We're really excited, it's a huge thing for our team, our program and it has been a goal for a long time," said Pacific head coach James Graham. "To be able to come out and accomplish that is a great feeling, we are hoping to be able to put together one more good weekend of water polo."
On paper, the matchup favors the Tigers. They've beaten Stanford in two out of three meetings this season and Graham will lean on the trio of powerful two-meter man Goran Tomasevic, high scoring attacker Balazs Erdelyi, and goalkeeper Alex Malkis among others. Despite beating the Cardinal, Graham knows how dangerous they can be. "Stanford has a great team, they have three superstars out there (BJ) Churnside, [Bret] Bonanni and [Alex] Bowen. They have some players who do an amazing job, like Forest Watkins, the glue to their team," he said. "Stanford has a high powered offense, we need to do a great job on our end defensively, if we can control some of those [Stanford] weapons, our offense should do its job."
USC saw both of their potential opponents this year winning both times, including a 13-4 victory over St. Francis Brooklyn back on Oct. 12. With their opponent not decided until Thursday, Vavic didn't particularly prepare for one specific team, and instead focused on his team, a group that is ready to play.
"We always talk about the NCAA Championship and how fulfilling it is to win it, in our minds it is the start of the season," said Vavic. "We really look forward to these games, if you don't enjoy that, you shouldn't be playing water polo, if you are going to get scared, then don't play water polo. I'm excited, my players are excited."
The quartet of seniors Vavic mentioned along with goalkeeper James Clark and emerging freshman Jon Walters will go a long way toward a potential USC six-peat. Goalkeeper and eastern championship MVP Igor Mladenovic will anchor the St. Francis Brooklyn defense with help from Vuk Vujosevic, Lazar Komadinic, and Bosko Stankovic to power the offense.
St. Francis Brooklyn will join Pacific in trying to make history this weekend -- capturing a first NCAA title. For Stanford they are trying to end a championship drought that stretches back to 2002. For USC, it is well known what they are working on, continuing a title streak six years in the making. It's something Vavic and the Trojans don't dwell on, even if many others do.
"You can't think about these things too much, it is all about the trip to get there, it's the ride that counts, the process. Every year is different, it'd be awesome if we win it, if we don't it's not the end of the world, the sun will come out, you'll still go home and have a meal with your family; but we'll sure fight for it and whatever happens, happens," he said.
The music continues this weekend at Stanford.