Southern California won its third straight NCAA men’s water polo championship on Sunday in Berkeley with a tense, 12-10 overtime victory over California, but this title may have been the most satisfying for the Trojans.
“No one expected us to do anything this season, so it was special,” said USC’s Nikola Vavic, who had three goals.
The Trojans were picked to finish fourth in their own conference – the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation – after losing all three of their first-team all-Americans from last season’s star-studded team – J.W. Krumpholz, Shea Buckner and Jordan Thompson.
“We brought in a brand-new framework, with a new approach,” USC goalie Joel Dennerly said.
But the Trojans wound up the regular season ranked No. 1 in the country, then won the national title in the home pool of the team that provided the biggest obstacle – No. 2-ranked Cal, which had been No. 1 most of the season.
“We figured if we were going to win it, we would have to go through Cal,” said USC’s Peter Kurzeka, who had four goals Sunday.
Ultimately, it was the USC supporters who jumped into the Golden Bears’ pool when it ended, and they owned the moment after USC captured its sixth national championship while denying Cal its 14th NCAA title.
“I felt this was the best NCAA tournament,” USC coach Jovan Vavic said. “The crowd, the excitement, having so many fans on both sides. The mecca of water polo is here. It was everything a championship game should be.”
It was the first time Cal had hosted the national water polo tournament, and losing was a major blow.
“Overtime games are an inch here and an inch there, and they got the inches,” Cal coach Kirk Everist said. “Obviously, we are very disappointed.”
Cal had to rally to win its semifinal match Saturday, and the championship game, played in a steady downpour, could not have been tighter. Neither team ever led by more than a goal during regulation time and the score was tied 10 times. The teams had split their two regular-season matches and were tied 10-10 after regulation time on Sunday.
Cal goalie Justin Parsons temporarily saved the Bears in the final minute of the fourth quarter when he made a great save on a close-range shot by USC’s Mace Rapsey, who had redirected a well-placed pass. The Bears had a final possession to win the game with the shot clock off, but the Bears never got a shot on goal.
In fact, the Bears did not score again after Ivan Rackov put Cal ahead 10-9 with 5:03 left in the fourth quarter, as USC shut out the Bears for the final 11 minutes.
“These games always come down to desire,” coach Vavic said, “and when you have great desire you are not tired.”
The go-ahead goal was scored by USC’s Kurzeka 40 seconds into the first three-minute overtime period, and the Trojans added another when Matthew Burton scored off a perfect pass from Tobias Preuss to make it 12-10 with 1:29 left in the first overtime period.
That was the first time either team led by more than a goal, and it seemed to break the Bears’ backs
Neither team scored in the second overtime period as the Trojans (28-2), who are known for their defense, controlled the closing minutes with their defense.
Zach White scored four goals for the Bears (24-4), but neither he nor his teammates could find the net in the overtime.
In Sunday’s third-place game, Loyola Marymount defeated St. Francis 9-7.
To receive Cal sports news regularly, click the “subscribe” button above the headline. It’s free.
For Stanford basketball news, click here.