Despite Firing, Vavic’s Presence Looms Large Over USC Water Polo

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Lindy Brownsberger displays her Trojan pride at USC vs. Stanford match last Saturday in Los Angeles. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

LOS ANGELES, CA. In the aftermath of a scandal such as the one that has upended the water polo community at USC, attempts at restoring normalcy start with the strong familial bonds at the core of any successful program—and for the past two decades, Southern Cal has been among the best in that regard.

There’s no question that the wreckage resulting from head coach Jovan Vavic’s stunning fall from grace mere weeks ago—a result of allegations that will likely transform all Trojan athletics—has severely tested a program that boast the reigning men’s and women’s national champions.

[After a Quarter Century in Troy, Jovan Vavic Fired as USC Men’s & Women’s Head Water Polo Coach]

Applying salve to these wounds are Casey Moon and Marko Pintaric, Vavic’s long-time assistants, now elevated to USC head women’s and head men’s coach, respectively. And many players’ parents, whose pride and devotion to both the program and school remain intact, are eager to calm the turbulence surrounding SC polo—almost to the point of obliviousness.

Trojan pride runs decades deep

At last weekend’s home match against Stanford, the nation’s second-ranked team, Trojan families were out in strength, many of them rallied by a social media missive from USC Athletic Director Lynn Swann. Cheering wildly from the expansive bleachers overlooking the Uytengsu Aquatics Center pool, to take an example, were Lindy and Scott Brownsberger. Their daughter Kaylee is a junior on the squad, and represents a Southern Cal legacy that goes back to her grandparents.

[Stanford Women’s Water Polo Storms into Uytengsu and Beats USC, Snapping 36-Match Win Streak]

Kaylee’s mom is charmingly zealous, perhaps reflecting her USC undergraduate days as a cheerleader. Shouting over the din of rabid fans, Lindy said that being a Trojan was her daughter’s sole collegiate aim.

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Fight On! Even at the USC Starbucks

“This was the number one place she focused on. She wanted to play water polo here—she pursued it, worked so hard—and she’s playing here.” Mom adds with pride, “Now she’s a national champion.”

Lindy and Scott—who played tennis for the Trojans—were careful not to pressure their daughter to follow in their footsteps. But the lure was great, and the results reportedly couldn’t have been better for Kaylee, who registered a hat trick last year in an NCAA quarterfinal match, as the team latched on to the sixth women’s title of the Vavic era.

Key to the Brownsbergers’ experience is the feeling that they too have joined a team—enjoying a deep well of support provided by other Trojan parents.

“All the other players’ parents that we’ve met—they’ve become a new family for us,” Lindy said. “It’s amazing.”

Coach remains at the head of the polo family

Coach Moon has only been the Trojan women’s head coach for four matches, but as the top women’s assistant for the previous 12 years, he’s intimately familiar with Vavic’s paternalistic approach: coach-as-loving-father-and-exacting-disciplinarian. Vavic employed it to great effect, skillfully knitting tight bonds to SC and the program, while emphasizing a high bar for success—and public recrimination for failure.

No. 1 USC Takes First Defeat Of 2019 In 9-8 Overtime Loss To No. 2 Stanford.

Marko Pintaric and Casey Moon. Photo Courtesy: John McGillen

Moon may not be able—or wish—to replicate his mentor’s piercing stares and sharp rebukes when redressing player mistakes. He has his own manner and will develop his relationship with his players over time.  But he’s all in on the importance of the close connections that draw in new recruits and link existing players to the program.

“Yes, you come here to play water polo, [and] for a great education,” said Moon of USC’s culture. “But it’s all about the relationships, and the girls truly believe it. And that’s what’s made us so successful.”

“This idea of family is what we preach from the beginning, and it starts from the top—from our department to our coaching staff—and it goes down to that number 16, 17, 18 girl,” he emphasized. “They truly love each other…and it shows in how they play.”

The model of coach as father figure, of course, is not unfamiliar in polo, nor is it peculiar to Southern Cal: Kathy Neushul, who has had three children play for Stanford’s Head Coach John Tanner, including current freshman Ryann, stresses her daughters Jamie’s and Kiley’s continued ties to a coach and a program they graduated from years ago.

“I don’t really know what goes on in other programs, but I do know that all three of [the Stanford coaches]—Kyle, Susan and John—they care about them as people, not just players,” Neushul said of the Cardinal coaching staff after her youngest daughter’s team had just beaten USC in overtime. “When my daughter had an issue with something in life, not just water polo, she went to John. And he counseled her. That’s five years since graduation!”

“They’re in it for the right reasons. This is absolutely their purpose and their goal.”

Of course, that assessment would likely have been liberally applied to USC polo before Vavic was arrested by the FBI on a criminal racketeering charge related to the Varsity Blues investigation.

Ties that blind beyond tribal boundaries

At a post-game gathering, Dwayne Hauschild appeared relaxed to the point of nonchalance—belying the competitive fire of the former Division I volleyball athlete at Long Beach State. It was fate and friendship that determined his daughter Paige’s athletic career, he said. The younger Hauschild may be the polo world’s best teenaged female—all credit due to the Neushul clan, according to her dad.

[Paige Hauschild: Great Expectations for a Special Talent]

“It’s funny to figure out why we’re water polo people and not volleyball people,” Hauschild said. “It’s because of Peter and Ryann Neushul. Ryann befriended Paige at Junior Lifeguards, Peter saw them playing together and said, That girl looks like she should try water polo. The rest is history.”

Though water polo may not have the same appeal for him as other sports, Hauschild has no doubts about Paige’s college choice; she was accepted into the nation’s three top programs, including Stanford, but she picked USC.

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USC’s Paige Hauschild. Photo Courtesy: Jorge Daboub

“The Trojan family thing is real,” he said. “That’s the one thing we found out. Our daughter chose this school, not based on anything other than the girls and the feeling of family.”

That the Neushuls of Stanford are in the conversation when it comes to USC polo should not surprise anyone. The familial ties to polo in California run deep. In addition to a long tenure with the Santa Barbara 805 Water Polo Club, one of the best age group clubs in the nation, Kathy Neushul was head coach for UC Santa Barbara’s women’s team. Husband Peter, who was on UCSB’s 1979 national champions, was a two-time All-American for the Gauchos.

The Neushul matriarch points out how crucial legacy is for a sport struggling to expand past its California roots.

“You see a lot of people entering water polo whose parents played,” she said in a post-game chat after the game. “This is the demographic of the sport.”

As a former NCAA varsity coach, she understands the family mindset that drives coaching culture.

“I tell my teams this all the time: you don’t necessarily have to like everyone on the team, but you certainly have to function together,” she explained. “And it’s probably one of the few sports that you cannot do by yourself. You can’t take it to the hoop and you can’t be the forward and run to the goal. You have to rely on many things before ball gets in goal. So you do have to come together very tightly as a group.”

It’s this mindset that exists within USC polo—one that will continue until Vavic’s fate is decided.

No regrets despite a shocking turn of fortune

Of course, the family most identified with the Trojans are the Vavics. Playing his daughter Monica (2012-15) and sons Nikolai (2010-13) and Marko, former head coach Jovan Vavic won six national titles. Even though most mentions of the Vavic patriarch have been scrubbed from the USC website and even from Uytensgu itself, Marko, a sophomore on the men’s team that won and NCAA title last December, was a visible symbol of his father’s tarnished legacy. At 6-5, his is an unmistakable reminder of his father, down to the well-worn Jovan Vavic Water Polo Camp t-shirt he sports.

[Catching Up with USC Water Polo’s Marko Vavic]

In the tumult following Vavic’s abrupt removal as coach on March 12 while his team was training in Hawai’i, senior leaders Amanda Longan—the 2018 Cutino Award winner as the nation’s best female player—and Courtney Fahey, a valued contributor to two championship teams, had a calming influence.

Fahey’s father Rich, loquacious and impeccably dressed in crimson and gold, articulated the depth of his family’s commitment to Trojan polo. Saying that his daughter’s time with the program has been the “best four years” of her life, Fahey and his wife counsel that this period is more opportunity than challenge.

No. 1 USC Takes First Defeat Of 2019 In 9-8 Overtime Loss To No. 2 Stanford.

USC’s Courtney Fahey. Photo Courtesy: John McGillen

“[I]t’s just another crowning moment in being proud parents, watching our daughter deal with an enormous amount of adversity that most 22-year-olds aren’t prepared for,” he said. “What we’ve told Courtney the past couple of weeks is: You were built for this. Life throws you curveballs and it’s how you react to it.”

Then, in a sound bite that could easily be a pitch to new recruits, he adds, “The USC experience is genuine; when you’re not in it you can’t totally understand it. When you are—you instantly fall in love.”

“These girls love each other, they fight together for each other. They embody the difference between really good teams and ones that win national championships.”

By any means necessary.

-Opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.