Swimming World’s Top Five Water Polo Events for 2019

The biggest news for 2019 in water polo? The abrupt firing of USC's Jovan Vavic after 25 years in Troy. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

2019 was a year like no other for water polo. Not only did the Stanford men’s program return to NCAA glory after almost two decades, the Cardinal women also won a national championship, making for a varsity polo sweep. Both the U.S. women’s team (expected) and the American men (touch and go) qualified for the 2020 Olympics, while Spain enjoyed a great result at the 2019 FINA World Championships. Despite finishing second in both brackets, the Spanish men and women secured berths to Tokyo and are prime contenders for medals in Tokyo.

But the year’s biggest news was the unexpected firing of Jovan Vavic. The head coach of the University of Southern California men’s and women’s water polo program for the last quarter century was terminated as a result of the Varsity Blues scandal that rocked admissions at some of the nation’s top universities.

[Commentary: The Rise and Scandalous Fall Of USC Water Polo Coach Jovan Vavic]

#5) Spain a double winner at 2019 FINA World Water Polo Championship. There was little doubt that both the Spanish men’s and women’s teams would eventually qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games. What was surprising is the manner in which they accomplished this feat. By virtue of brilliant runs to the finals of both the men’s and women’s bracket at FINA Worlds — the first time that one nation had two teams playing for gold — both teams from Spain punched their tickets to Tokyo.

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Tears of joy in the pool for Spain’s Daniel Lopez Pinedo after huge semifinal win over Croatia. Photo Courtesy: Wataru Ninomija / FINA

The Spanish men beat mighty Croatia 6-5 in the semi-finals behind a brilliant performance by goalie Daniel Lopez Pinedo, who registered 100 stops over seven matches. They ran out of steam in the finals, losing to Italy 10-5, as Stefano Luongo and Vincenzo Dolce netted a pair of goals to qualify the Italians. By virtue of finishing second, Spain picked up the other Olympic berth available at the World Championships.

Spain’s women breezed undefeated to a gold-medal match against the Americans, who were in the midst of an epic winning streak — one that would continue by virtue of an 11-6 win. Kiley Neushul led the Americans with three goals, while Roser Tarrago netted a hat-trick for the Spaniards. By virtue of Team USA’s earlier Olympic qualification in June at the FINA World League Super Final, Spain was awarded the Olympic berth in play in Gwangju, South Korea.

[Three-Peat for USA Women at FINA World Water Polo Championships]

4) U.S. Women’s streak reaches 68-straight. If not for a lack of competition — and one unexpected development — American dominance would be the top story of the year. They have not lost since April 2018, and in that time have beaten the national teams of 18 other countries. Since 2015, Team USA has won every major tournament that they’ve entered — a run of 12 straight titles — and since winning gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Head Coach Adam Krikorian’s team has lost just twice (108-2). There’s no reason to believe a loss will occur in 2020. The Americans are favored for a third-straight Olympic gold in Tokyo, and goalie Ashleigh Johnson is universally acclaimed to be the world’s best female polo player.

[Will This Team Ever Lose? U.S. Women Beat Netherlands for 2019 USAWP Holiday Cup Title, Run Win Streak to 68]

3) Stanford men and women win NCAA titles. The Cardinal women took a 9-8 decision over a beleaguered but valiant USC squad to capture the program’s seventh national championship, and fourth in six years. Makenzie Fischer — named the 2019 Cutino Award winner as the nation’s top female collegiate polo player — netted three goals, but it was freshman Ryann Neushul who hit the game-winner, beating USC’s Amanda Longan with five minutes left. Ryann joins sisters Jamie and Kiley as Stanford national champions.

[SW Polo Roundtable with Jordan Raney, Jamie, Kiley + Ryann Neushul: Why the U.S. Women are So Good]

The Stanford men completed the NCAA sweep — last accomplished by USC in 2013 — with a relatively easy 13-8 win over host Pacific earlier this month. Leading the way with a hat-trick for the Cardinal was Ben Hallock. Already an Olympian and a Cutino Award winner (in 2019 – along with Stanford’s Fischer), the 6-6 junior has now accomplished as much as an American can in NCAA play. His next stop is Tokyo, where he will look to join Stanford great Tony Azevedo as a rare triple threat: NCAA title, Cutino Award winner and Olympic medalist. Azevedo was part of the U.S. squad that made a memorable run to the finals of the 2008 Beijing Games, dropping a 14-10 decision to Hungary.

Also noteworthy was Cardinal men’s Head Coach John Vargas, who had gone 17 years between NCAA titles, having last won in 2002 when Azevedo was a senior.

2) U.S. men qualify for the 2020 Olympics. The American men had qualified for the previous nine Olympic Games, but in this quad, nothing was certain given a disastrous performance at the 2017 FINA World Water Polo Championships, where they finished a program-worst 13th. U.S. Head Coach Dejan Udovicic has been attacked by critics who expect that his team perform better, while the squad has been beset by high-level defections, including Brett Bonanni after the 2016 Rio Games, and then McQuin Baron and Alex Roelse following a 2018 FINA tournament in Berlin.

[On The Record with Bret Bonanni: The Olympian Who Got Away]

Luckily, the rest of the region’s polo-playing nations have their own problems, in particular Brazil, which fired Head Coach Angel Coelho right before the 2019 FINA World Championships. In the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, Udovicic’s team had one challenging match — a 13-11 win over Canada in group play — before sweeping to their seventh straight PanAm title with an 18-6 win over Canada and with it an automatic berth in the Tokyo Games.

Lima, Saturday August 10, 2019 - The USA team celebrates after winning the Men´s Water Polo Gold match against Canada at the Complejo Deportivo Villa Maria del Triunfo at the Pan American Games Lima 2019. Copyright Enrique Cuneo / Lima 2019 Mandatory credits: Lima 2019 ** NO SALES ** NO ARCHIVES **

Will we see celebrations like this in Tokyo? Photo Courtesy: Enrique Cuneo / Lima 2019

Following what has to be the biggest win of his five-year tenure as head coach for the Americans, Udovicic was subdued.

“I’m happy, especially because of the guys,” he said following the match. “This is especially important for Jesse [Smith] and all, it’s a very young group.”

On to Tokyo for the Americans, who have to hope that first-time Olympians Hannes Daube, Johnny Hooper, Max IrvingChancellor Ramirez, Marko Vavic, Alex Wolf and others have what it takes to get their team past group play.

#1) Jovan Vavic fired as USC head men’s and women’s coach. The news came like a thunderclap; on the morning of March 12th, while his team was preparing for a match against host Hawai’i, the winningest coach in NCAA water polo history was arrested by the FBI. Snared in the net of suspects as part of the massive Varsity Blues admissions scandal, Vavic — who in his time in Troy led his men’s and women’s teams to 15 NCAA titles (10 for the men, five for the women) — was arguably the most recognizable name in American water polo.

[Whither Jovan?]

His fall — due to accusations that he accepted bribes, allegedly funneled through a non-profit fund to pay for education costs at Loyola High School — generated a firestorm of commentary from the American news media and put polo on the media map in a non-Olympic year. Claiming his innocence, Vavic has hired an experienced lawyer to fight the charges, and there’s some thought that he will beat the charges and have numerous options available for the future. Maintaining a low profile, he has been sighted at various NCAA events. Perhaps he’ll follow his son Marko to Tokyo — and scout the U.S. men during the 2020 Olympics.