MPSF Tournament Central: Catching Up with USC Coach Jovan Vavic

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USC's Jovan Vavich, Photo Courtesy: John McGillen/USC Athletics

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

LOS ANGELES, CA. Over the next three days Swimming World will cover the 2017 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation’s (MPSF) Women’s Water Polo tournament, to be held April 28-30 at UCLA’s Spieker Aquatics Center.

Featuring the country’s top five programs—#1 UCLA, #2 Stanford, #3 USC, #4 Arizona State and #5 (T) Cal—the MPSF Tournament is one of the top non-Olympic tournaments in the world. Four of these teams will almost certainly qualify for the 2017 NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tournament, with the MPSF champs assured of both the tournament’s top seed and a bye into the Final Four.

In Friday’s opening round Stanford will play CSU Bakerfield, USC will face San Jose State and Arizona State plays Cal. The Sun Devils vs. Bears match is perhaps the most important of the tournament; the loser will no longer have a shot at NCAAs while the winner is very much alive for one of the tournament’s three at-large berths.

Last year four MPSF teams made it to NCAAs, and in a year where the competition is as good as at any time in MPSF history, the conference is likely to again send four teams.

Prior to tournament play, Swimming World spoke with Jovan Vavic, head coach for the USC men’s and women’s teams. One of the most decorated coach in NCAA water polo history, in an illustrious career at Southern Cal Vavic has captured a total of 14 NCAA titles—nine men’s and five women’s—while winning National Coach of the Year honors 13 times. From 2008 – 2013 his men’s team captured an unprecedented six-straight NCAA titles, and last fall ended archrival UCLA’s 57-match win streak. Earlier this month his women’s program, defending MPSF and NCAA champs, had its record 52-match winning streak snapped by Stanford.

Coach Vavic spoke about his program’s success, the challenges his current team faces defending their MPSF and NCAA titles, what has been one of the most talented years ever in U.S. women’s varsity water polo, and imagining a future for Trojan polo without the incomparable Stephania Haralabidis and her twin sister Ioanna.

It’s been a memorable year for USC water polo. In the fall your Trojans snapped the Bruins record win streak, and this spring your women fashioned an NCAA-best winning streak of their own—accomplishments that will be remembered long after the season is over.

I always tell people that streaks are nice because you get used to winning. You always try to win as many games as possible but we really don’t talk about it that much.

It’s fun while it lasts but we always prepare that the next game maybe isn’t going to be a great one.

After having your record win streak snapped by Stanford, what do you think your team has learned going into the MPSF Tournament?

I learned way back in February the same thing I learned when we lost in April [to Stanford]. I don’t think my players learned [it] and that is we are giving up too many goals. [Even] in those games that we won [10-9 win over UCLA on February 25 and 10-9 OT win over Stanford the next day] we gave up nine goals. I told the girls that was not going to be good enough, because then we played Hawaii in Honolulu and it’s 8-8 with the last 30 seconds to go [USC won 9-8 to set the all-time win streak for NCAA women’s water polo].

We’ve been trying to fix that the entire season and haven’t been able to do so. If we don’t improve in that area in the next couple of weeks then we have nothing to hope for in the NCAAs.

There are a slew of Olympians playing in the U.S. this year—and seven will be at UCLA for the MPSF tournament. How has that impacted MPSF play this season?

You could have easily added three more from our team; if the Dutch and Greek teams went to the Olympics we would have had [Holland’s Maude Megens and Greece’s Ioanna and Stephania Haralabidis] because they’re members of their national teams.

What it does is it makes U.S.A. stronger—we have the strongest league in the world and that contributes to the success of the national team because if all these players are tested on a regular basis in a strong league with many tough matches then it elevates the level of water polo in general.

I really enjoy it when we have so many strong players to compete against—it impacts everybody.

Is it just the competition or is there something more that attracts so many great foreign players to the U.S.?

I went to college in Yugoslavia in the 1980s and we didn’t have a set-up where your practices and classes were all in one place. Countries like Serbia and Croatia discourage you from going to university so that you can become a professional water polo player.

Here it’s the best of both worlds. [You can] focus on your studies and play water polo at the highest level. In a state like California where there’s so much opportunity, it is the best of everything.

I can understand why so many young people want to experience this—and if somebody pays for your education I’d wonder why wouldn’t you do it.

MPSF newcomers Maddie Musselman of UCLA and Makenzie Fisher of Stanford had great success in the 2016 Olympics and have made their mark this season on conference play.

I believe that everything starts at home and having great parents is what it takes to raise an athlete and provide then with everything they need to be successful. Both Fischer’s and Musselman’s parents were athletes at the highest level [Jeff Musselman played five years of major league baseball; Erich Fischer was a two-time All-American in water polo at Stanford and played for the U.S. Men’s National Team in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona].

Fortunately they had great coaches in high school and a great coach with the national team. The combination of these things and then having God-given length,  talent and speed doesn’t hurt.

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Maddie Musselman. Photo Courtesy: UCLA Athletics

Musselman in particular is impressive because she has accomplished so much at such a young age. Given her success—55 goals as a freshman as well as five against your team last week—how do you stop her?

Any great player can be stopped, as long as you know their strengths and weaknesses and really work hard. When you play defense against somebody who’s intelligent and tough you work hard and learn their tendencies before they happen. You have to be focused.

So when she burned us in the last game we basically did the stupidest thing we could have done: we left her open. [My players] were right next to her and could have gotten to her quicker and they just didn’t.

Everyone [has to be] defending the top players and be aware of where they are. You don’t guard somebody like LeBron James with just one person. If you leave him one-on-one he’s going to kill you.

All six players in water polo have to be aware of where that player is.

Of course, you also have an exceptionally talented newcomer: Maud Megens, a freshman from the Netherlands.

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Maud Megens. Photo Courtesy: USC Athletics

It’s very interesting that she also comes from an athletic family. Her mother played water polo in the Olympics and her father was also an athlete. All three of those freshmen we are discussing come from athletic families. She has great experience playing at a high level in Holland and is very capable of doing more than one thing. She’s quick, explosive, strong legs. [Being] 6-2 really helps and she a very intelligent player. Playing for the national team and having so many international games helped her. She was voted second-best player in Europe last year.

You’ll need her to step up because you’ll be losing five seniors in 2017.

We lose five players: the two Greek girls, both of our centers, Brigitta Games, who contributed in the finals last year. Avery Peterson is a senior as well as Nikki Stansfield. So we lose five girls but we have two other freshmen who are actually outstanding. Denise Mammolito, before she’s a senior she’s going to make a name for herself. She’s also about 6-2, similar in the type of player as Maud. She’s younger and needs time but she’s going to going to be outstanding.

Kelsey McIntosh has been injured part of this season but I think she’s an outstanding player. She was the CIF player of the year last year when her high school [Orange Lutheran] won a state title.

I’m almost positive that all three are going to be All-Americans.

And, there’s the incomparable Stephania Haralabidis, now #2 all-time in scoring [260 goals]. How has she impacted your Trojan women’s water polo this season and over the past four years?

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Stephania Haralabidis Photo Courtesy: USC Athletics

She really was key last season as was her sister, Ioanna, who’s an outstanding defender—our primary two-meter defender. The two of them changed our program last season for the better. They were outstanding as freshmen but they were not mature enough. So their maturity level now is way, way higher and now they are true leaders of our team and they understand what it takes to win.

Sometimes it’s difficult when you come from another country to understand how you need to operate in a system. It’s all about chemistry and hard work.

Where they grew up it’s all about competition—it’s us against the world. So now they’re great teammates, great fighters and they have changed our program for the better.

I’m hoping they will have a great three weeks at the end of the season to finish their careers on a positive note.