STANFORD, Calif., May 9. TWENTY-EIGHT and oh, and only one to go.
That's the situation Coach Jovan Vavic's Women of Troy water polo team, top-ranked nationally with a perfect 28-0 record, finds itself in today as the Trojans will play upstart Loyola-Marymount this afternoon at 4 pm PDT here for the NCAA Championship.
The Trojans were top-ranked nationally and not unnaturally top-seeded coming into today's Final Four semifinal match against Hartwick College's Hawks at the Cardinal's Avery Aquatic Center, also site of last December's men's NCAA Final Four which USC won. And to the surprise of no one, USC romped past Hartwick, 12-4, yesterday afternoon to advance to the finals.
LMU, which has played in all three previous NCAA Final Fours but had never won a match, toppled No. 2-seed Stanford, 5-4, and will be the Trojans' foe in an all-Southern California final. The LMU Lions, champions of the Western Water Polo Assn., have never beaten the Trojans. Prior to Saturday, USC had never played in the women's Final Four.
Whichever team wins will score its first championship. USC men's polo team won over Stanford in double-overtime last fall, giving Vavic's Men of Troy their second NCAA Championship and stopping Stanford's two-year reign as champs. A Ttrojan win would also make Vavic only the second coach ever to win a women's and men's title. UCLA's Adam Krikorian first did it during the 2000-'01 season.
Stanford had played in all three previous NCAA Championship matches and won the title over UCLA two years ago, but a determined LMU team put paid to the Cardinal's aspirations for a second crown.
Today's championship match will be televised live by the CSTV cable channel.
USC is on a remarkable roll as far as national championships go during the 2003-'04 academic year. The Trojans won a share of the national football title and blasted Michigan in the Rose Bowl Jan. 1. A couple of weeks earlier, the SC women's volleyball team won its second consecutive national crown, going undefeated; and a week prior to that the men's polo team won its NCAA crown.
Not since 1962-'63 has USC had a better year. That season the Trojans won the undisputed national football championshiup and defeated Wisconsin int he Rose Bowl, plus they won NCAA championships in four other sports, including swimming. All titles were men's, as in those "enlightened" days there were no collegiate athletics for women.
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USC scored eight first-half goals and never looked back as the Trojans dismantled the Hartwick Hawks. Hartwick staged a small comeback in the fourth period to cut USC's lead, but the Trojan defense was overwhelming behind solid goalkeeping by MPSF Goalie of the Year, Kelly Graff.
The Trojans had six players score two goals each, while the Hawks were led by Sheri Johnson's two fourth period scores.
USC got the scoring started early with a 6-on-5 goal by freshman Brittany Hayes after Hartwick's Carly Strub drew an ejection. The Trojans added another score at the 5:40 mark when sophomore Moriah Van Norman found the back of the cage from 2-meters. USC played very aggressive defense in the middle of the first, with keeper Kelly Graff picking up four early saves, and elicited a 35 second shot clock violation. They added to their lead with 3:00 to go in the fist by recording a score on a 1-meter lob shot by Liz Simms and again with 1:10 remaining on a 2-meter shot by Erika Figge.
In the second, USC's Lauren Wenger wasted no time finding the back of the net from 6-meters just 24 seconds into the period. Van Norman added another score with 5:08 left in the half by depositing a backhand from 2-metes into the left-hand corner of the cage. The Trojans scored two more goals at 1:13 (Erika Figge's second) and 0:59 (Anna Pardo) left in the half.
Hartwick came out of halftime by playing stifling defense, holding USC scoreless until 4:44 left in the third period when the Trojans added another netter as Brittany Hayes scored a one-timer goal on a lobbed pass from Erika Figge for her second score of the match. USC capitalized on a Hawk ejection with a 4:09 score from Erin Wilson on a rocketed shot from the 6-meter zone. Anne Pardo added her second goal of the match with 3;30 remaining by pounding a penalty shot well to the left of Hartwick keeper Amy Brunton. The Hawks got a huge score with 45 seconds left in the period when senior driver Collen Santos put in a picturesque lob from the right side over the outstretched hand of USC keeper Graff, spoiling her shutout attempt.
Sara Mix came in to relieve Graff in the fourth and was quickly challenged by Carly Strub on a breakaway 34 seconds into the period, but rejected the shot. The Hawks continued to ride the momentum of their third period score by peppering USC continuously in the fourth with solid defense and scoring. They posted goals with 5:47 (Sheri Johnson) and 4:48 (Strub) left in the game to cut the Trojan lead to eight. The Trojans wouldn't stop on offense though, as senior utility Liz Simms added her second goal of the match with 4:05 left. The Hawks still didn't give up, with Sheri Johnson finding the back of the cage for a second time, taking a 6-meter feed from freshman utility Keri James.
Notes: Hayes' two tallies giver her 56 for the season, one behind teammate and national-leader Moniah Van Norman's 57 (she also had two scores). Hayes is on an amazing streak. An All-CIF player for four seasons at Santa Ana's Foothill High, she was Player of the Year the last two years and helped lead the Knights to a perfect 30-0 record and their fourth-consecutive championship last year. A win today would give the rookie five titles in five seasons. Interestingly, although she had offers from schools such as Stanford and UCLA, where two of her closest friends and Knight teammates wound up, she opted for USC — even though her father's a UCLA grad!
"It was nerve-racking" [trying to decide which college to attend], she says. "But after I returned from a recruiting trip here [USC} I decided this was the place for me. I just loved it" Not surprisingly, her coach is equally pleased with her decision.
Freshman utility Erika Figge went 3-3 on sprints for USC and Marina Mayer won her fourth quarter one....USC's defense blocked 4 shots in the first half....Brunton was averaging 9.64 saves and 5.49 goals against...She had 4 saves and 12 against...USC had 8 ejections with Hartwick converting none of the ensuing 6-on-5 opportunities; the Hawks had 6 ejections and USC capitalized on 4 of those...Hartwick used all 4 of its timeouts....USC improved to 28-0, Hartwick drops to 33-9....
1 2 3 4 TOTAL
USC 4 4 3 1 12
Hartwick 0 0 1 3 4
USC Scores: Figge 2 (1, 1:10; 2, 1:13); Hayes 2 (1, 6:35; 3, 4:44); Pardo 2 (2, 0:59; 3, 3:30); Simms 2 (1, 3:00; 4, 4:05); Van Norman 2 (1, 5:40; 2: 5:08); Wilson 2 (2, 6:36; 3, 3, 4:09)
Hartwick Scores: Johnson (4, 5:47; 4, 3:03); Santos (3: 0:45); Strub (4, 4:48)
Goalie Saves: USC: Graff 7 (1 against), Mix 2 (3 against) Hartwick: Brunton 2 (12 against)
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In the other semifinal, Loyola Marymount -- located on the bluffs in Westchester, a stone's throw from the Pacific -- earned a stunning 5-4 win over second-ranked Stanford, thus advancing to the championship game for the first time in school hstory.
Sophomore Stacia Peterson, the Lions' leading goal scorer on the season, rifled home a two-meter shot with no time remaining on the clock in regulation to lift the fifth-ranked Lions to their win. The goal came on a 6-on-5 advantage as the Lions erased deficits of 2-0 and 4-3 for the victory.
"I'm so excited I can hardly talk," an emotional LMU coach John Loughran said after the wild finish. "I thought she [Peterson] had a good shotand we were all yelling for her to take it and when it hit the back of the cage my heart stopped. What a victory!"
The win is the first over Stanford in program history. The trip to the NCAA title-game will be the first for any LMU squad in the more than 90 years of intercollegiate athletics at the University to play for an NCAA-sponsored national championship.
The Lions, who are seeded third in the tournament, have played top-seed USC once this season, falling 8-4 at USC on March 24. This is the fourth-consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament for the Lions and the first for USC.
With the win, the Lions improve to 25-5, setting the all-time record for wins in a season for the program.
1 2 3 4 TOTAL
(2) Stanford 2 0 2 0 4
(3) LMU 0 3 0 2 5
Stanford Scores: Faust (3, 2:44); Hansen (3, 0:41); Hewko (1, 3:21); Shafer (1, 4:29)
LMU Scores: Peterson 2 (2, 4:01; 4, 0:00); Guidi (2, 0:02); Hamilton (4, 1:32); Wright (2, 3:03)
Stanford: McColl 4 (5 goals against)
LMU: Murray 12 (4 goals against)