PALO ALTO, Calif. -- When the final horn sounded and USC had won their sixth consecutive NCAA crown, head coach Jovan Vavic didn't immediately join the rest of his celebrating team in the pool.
It wasn't because winning national championships has gotten old, it was something else.
"I was shocked we won the game," Vavic said, winner of seven in the past nine years. "I was so shocked that I actually didn't experience the great emotion that you usually experience when you win a championship, I just couldn't believe we won. It doesn't get old, it really doesn't. When that buzzer was off I still couldn't believe it. It really didn't look like we would win that game."So it was on the sixth title, back at Stanford where this all started in 2008, that perhaps the most improbable victory occurred. A 12-11 edge-of-your-seat overtime thriller against up-and-coming Pacific.
In a season where USC looked its most beatable, a relative term in a four-loss season, the Trojans came back from the brink late in the fourth period. Showing resolve that is forged in a program with six consecutive championships, the Trojans faced a two-goal deficit with 3:31 to play in the fourth period and 90 seconds later produced a one-goal lead. For their latest trick, senior Jeremy Davie took a feed from classmate Nikola Vavic and the duo, former freshman roomates, beat Pacific goalie Alex Malkis for an 11-10 lead with 2:05 to go.
Pacific's Balasz Erdelyi, who turned in a performance for the ages, scored his seventh goal of the match with less than 30 seconds to play to force overtime. Erdelyi would earn the tourney's Most Outstanding Player award, a rare honor for a member of the losing team, but he could not halt the USC machine. After a scoreless first overtime period, Vavic connected on a bar-in with 2:17 to play to grab the 12-11 lead.
From there the USC defense did the job. It stopped a Pacific power-play try with 1:35 to play and then with under a minute to play Kostas Genidounias pilfered a crucial steal. For this veteran squad it was the ending to a movie they have seen many times before.
"It's like practice, I don't like to say that," USC senior goalkeeper James Clark said. "But we've been there so many times that we just know how to get ourselves out of it. We have the caliber of players to finish shots at the end and to make the big plays. We managed to do it today. We've been there before and no one wants to lose that final game, especially today."
Another senior Connor Virjee echoed those sentiments, "[It was the] same thing last year, we went down [to UCLA], but all these guys are just calm, we have a certain poise about us that I don't think any other team has because we've been there time and time again."
While USC had no assurances they would meet Pacific in this championship battle, it was something they prepared for. Vavic noted that a good amount of their pre-season practice was devoted to stopping one team, the Tigers. "This is the team we trained to beat the most," Vavic said. "In my opinion they were going to the team to beat this year."
Pacific was indeed the team to beat this year, though that offered little consolation to the Tigers and their graduating class that includes Erdelyi, Malkis and the beastly two-meter man, Goran Tomasevic. While USC had targeted the Tigers, the Tigers had targeted the title this season. Head coach James Graham red-shirted Tomasevic last year to load up for this season and for the most part it worked.
Regardless, it wasn't lost on Graham the history this group made. Just the third team outside of water polo's vaunted big four (California, Stanford, UCLA, USC) to make the NCAA final in the past 25 years is a big deal. "What I told the guys is just because someone gets crowned champion doesn't mean that's the only team that should feel proud," Graham said. "We should feel proud today to get to this game. We've gotta get back and get ready next year. I hope some players want to come in and fill [some] amazing shoes."
USC will bid farewell to a talented group of seniors as well among them Virjee, Vavic, Clark, Davie, Zach Lucas and Mace Rapsey, who gutted out the final with a rib injury. Whomever steps up next year for USC, coach Vavic will rely on what has gotten them six consecutive rings. "We just believe in our process and training, it all starts with discipline," he said. "You have to be willing to do things you don't always like to do. Our discipline is probably the most important thing. [Also] we have very talented players, that's where it starts. It makes my job easier."
There was nothing easy about title number six, but once again USC found a way. The NCAA trophy will continue its long term lease in Los Angeles, that is, once the shock wears off.