Fast Start, Tense Finish to 2018 Men’s Water Polo Championship Gives USC 10th NCAA Title

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This NEVER gets old for the Trojans or their fans. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

USC blitzed Stanford for five goals in the first period, then had to hang on for dear life as a desperate Cardinal rally fell short, making the Trojans 14-12 victors in the 2018 Men’s Water Polo Tournament final at Avery Aquatic Center.

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“There are going to be games like this where everything goes your way,” USC Head Coach Jovan Vavic said in a press conference immediately following the match. “We started the game hot and sometimes that’s all it takes.”

The triumph was much appreciated by all Trojan faithful, but none more so than Vavic, who has steered his team into a remarkable 14-straight title matches. Southern Cal had dropped the last four of those title tilts, including a tough home loss to arch-rival UCLA in 2017.

“We waited a long time for this one—four years has been a very long time for us and our seniors.” Vavic said, flanked by senior Zach D’Sa and tournament MVP Jacob Mercep.

With the win, Vavic now has ten men’s titles to add to his collection of six women’s crowns—including last spring, when the Trojan women won the 2018 title, also over Stanford—making him the most-decorated coach in NCAA water polo history.

Lavishing praise on his team by identifying a “complete team effort” in which nine different players scored, the veteran coach pushed back on only selecting lefty Mercep as the finals MVP.

“Jacob was the MVP but I think Nic was the MVP as well,” he said, putting in a plug for Nic Porter, his freshman goalie who recorded 12 saves, many of the spectacular variety.

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2018 NCAA MVP Jacob Mercep. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Mercep was an obvious choice; in additional to his five goals Sunday, he scored an important goal in USC’s win over UCLA in Saturday’s semifinal. But Porter keyed a Trojan defense that on consecutive days out-muscled the Bruins and then absolutely baffled the Cardinal until late in the match.

“At the end of the day, individual awards don’t mean too much to me,” the young Australian, said, then—articulating the thoughts of all his teammates—added: “I’m really happy that as a complete team, we were able to get that national championship for them,” referring to seniors D’Sa and Danny Leong.

[Watch Danny Leong’s speech at 2018 NCAA Men’s Tournament banquet]

Less than two minutes into the match, Mercep launched the Trojan scoring onslaught. As his teammates piled up the goals, Porter closed the door on the Cardinal time and again until late in the match, when an eight-goal USC advantage was whittled down to two, and the visitors had to withstood some tense moments.

Stanford’s Ben Hallock scored five times, while Bennet Williams chipped in with three goals. It was Stanford’s burly center who was in the middle of the match’s only dramatic moment. Down three scores with a minute and a half remaining, the Cardinal were awarded a penalty shot that—if successful—might give be enough time for the hosts to catch up.

Perhaps it was the moment or—more likely—a slippery ball, but Hallock flubbed the shot, and Stanford’s last gasp for a comeback were dashed.

Despite an unsightly start, Stanford Head Coach John Vargas complimented his players’ resilience, a trait of the first Cardinal squad to play for a national championship since 2008, also a loss to the Trojans.

“We dug ourselves a big hole and the character that these guys showed of not giving up and coming back,” he said.

The final result was not indicative of just how dominant USC was in the early going. Despite being whistled for four exclusions in the opening period and 10 in the match’s first 16 minutes, the Trojans burst out to 5-0 and 7-1 leads. The Cardinal were a dismal one for 10 in the first half with the man advantage. USC’s ability to shut down Stanford’s power play was shocking, and ultimately proved fatal to the Cardinal’s title hopes.

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USC’s Nic Porter; he went from unknown freshman to Trojan hero. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

That, and a focus on stopping Hallock, voted 2018 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Player of the Year.

“Everything we did today was to stop the ball from going to him,” Vavic said of the Stanford star. “When you have a player like that you always have a shot at winning.”

The USC strategy was wildly successful; Hallock did not get his first goal until a minute into the third period; by then the Trojans led by seven. They would extended their advantage to 11-3 late in the third period before the Cardinal rallied, scoring eight times in less than eight minutes.

But, it was not enough.

For USC, the title caps a season that saw Vavic’s team dominate for most of the season—at one point the Trojans were 28-1 and had scored twice as many goals as their opponents—then stumbled badly at the MPSF tournament, losing to Cal and UCLA to finish fourth, jeopardizing an NCAA at-large berth.

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Stanford faithful will need to wait another day for a men’s title. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Luckily, their track record was sufficient to merit a second seed in this year’s tournament, and wins Saturday over #4 seed UCLA and over top-seeded Stanford proved this year’s Trojans worthy of being enshrined with other SC winners, including the classes of 2011, 2012 and 2013 that each won NCAA titles all four years, part of a remarkable streak of six-straight national champions.

Newcomer Mercep—who this time last year was still on the San Jose State roster —explained just how much Vavic and the USC way changes everything.

“I love every part of this life being a Trojan—waking up in the morning, going to practice with these guys.” the sensational sophomore said. “These are not just regular teammates, these are all my brothers—who will be friends for the rest of my life.”

2 comments

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Bravo indeed!

      It’s easy to say that the Trojan’s accomplishment(s) will never be broken… then they make it to yet ANOTHER final and, as they have done so often during the Vavic era, find a way to win.

      Here’s to a great championship team that figured out the best way to win.

      Your correspondent