As the No. 1 USC men’s water polo team entered the championship game of the NCAA tournament on Sunday against No. 2 UCLA, it stepped into a scenario that featured many familiar storylines: a fifth straight NCAA final appearance, a chance for back-to-back national championships for the first time in program history, a fifth match against UCLA this season, and a head coach with the opportunity to further his record-breaking success with yet another title.
But as the final buzzer sounded and the Trojans secured their fifth NCAA championship since 1998, it was a different storyline that proved to be most important — the dominance of USC’s senior class.
As has been the norm for the Trojans this season, the group of 10 seniors — most of whom had been together since their freshman year — propelled both the offensive and defensive attack in USC’s 7-6 win over their cross-town rival, providing the perfect ending to a near-perfect four year stretch at USC.
“It was a wonderful ending to the best generation we’ve ever had,” said USC coach Jovan Vavic, who has been a part of all five Trojan national titles. “It is really fitting for these boys to end up on top, to win their last collegiate game, and to beat UCLA. It’s one of those dream-come-true endings, and I am extremely proud of them and I am really going to miss them.”
Senior two-meter Jordan Thompson — who captured the NCAA tournament MVP — and sophomore driver Peter Kurzeka led the Trojans with two goals apiece; senior two-meters J.W. Krumpholz and Shea Buckner, and senior driver Matt Sagehorn each added a score as well.
The Trojans were first to get on the board, as Kurzeka was able to find the net during a counterattack to put USC up in the opening minutes. A Thompson penalty shot notched the second goal for the Trojans, and then Krumpholz — who has scored in four straight NCAA tournament final matches — blasted in a shot from the post to give USC a 3-0 advantage.
After UCLA was able to narrow the score to 4-3 in the second, the vaunted Trojan defense — which has ranked first in the nation the last five years — came alive, coming up with several key blocks to create counterattacks for USC. Once again, it was Thompson and Kurzeka driving the Trojans’ scoring, as the senior found pay dirt on a well-contested hook shot and the sophomore was able to skip in a shot from the left side to put USC up by three again.
But UCLA continued to fight, and goals from juniors Jacob Murphy and Ben Hohl in the final minutes of the third brought the Bruins to within one score going into the fourth period.
Like so many previous games this season, it was USC’s finishing ability in the fourth period that allowed it to prevail. Sagehorn blasted in a huge goal to put the Trojans up 7-5 with four minutes left to play, and despite another Hohl score for the Bruins, the defense was able to stamp out the UCLA attack in the final two minutes to secure the title.
“We were focused on our defense throughout the entire game, and we did a great job stopping UCLA’s extra man,” Vavic said. “We shut down their best outside shooter, and everybody contributed.”
Part of the reason for their success, according to Thompson, can be attributed to the experience of the team and their familiarity with playing in the championship round.
“I’ve never felt that calm before a game, and the guys were saying that they all felt the same way,” Thompson said. “We knew what we were doing and we went in being confident, and that really helped us.”
To get to the championship round, the Trojans first had to face host Princeton, who entered the tournament ranked No. 13. It was only the second time in history that the two teams have squared off in the water polo arena, but the Trojans had little trouble disposing of the Tigers 13-3. Krumpholz led USC with three goals, and eight different Trojans were able to find the net.
The tournament win marks the first time the Trojans have ever beat an opponent other than Stanford in the NCAA title game, and it gives USC a 3-2 series advantage over UCLA for the season. All three wins the Trojans had over the Bruins were decided by a single goal.
“It’s the perfect way to go out,” Thompson said. “We’ve never beat UCLA in the Championship game before, and to do it as a senior is amazing.”