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How USC Water Polo Made History

USC men's water polo defeated Pacific in an overtime thriller to win its sixth straight national title and make Jovan Vavic the most decorated coach in Trojan history.


It's 1943, and Dean Cromwell is sitting at his desk looking at his roster. World War II is in full swing, and the USC track & field roster has been severely cut down as many athletes have left to enlist. Though the Trojans have won the last eight NCAA titles, Cromwell isn't sure if it is worth it to send what little athletes he had left to the national championships in Chicago.

At the last minute, he sends a four-man team featuring two sprinters, a long jumper, and a javelin thrower. One of the sprinters, Cliff Bourland, finishes first in the 440-yard dash, and all members of the team finish in the top four of their events. They finish with 46 points, enough to win Coach Cromwell his record 12th NCAA title.

For 70 years, that title count kept Cromwell atop the list as the most successful coach in USC history. Even Rod Dedeaux, the legendary Trojan baseball coach, came one title short of beating the record. But on Sunday night, under a twilight sky at Stanford's Avery Aquatic Center, Jovan Vavic joined his USC water polo players in the pool for the 13th time in his unbelievable coaching career.

The Trojans defeated the Pacific Tigers in an overtime season finale to do what no collegiate water polo team, male or female, has ever been able to do: win six national titles in a row.  With nine championships as coach of the men's team and four as coach of the women's, Vavic now stands as the winningest coach in the 125-year history of USC Athletics.

Granted, water polo doesn't exactly have the depth of competitive teams many other college sports have. The four Pac-12 California schools - USC, UCLA, Cal, and Stanford - are known in water polo as the Big Four, constantly bouncing the title of "Defending Champion" between them like a team trying to spread out the defense in the pool after an exclusion is called.

But Vavic and his players have found a way every year since 2008 to rise to the occasion with the title on the line, even as their rivals' attempts to end their dynasty get harder and harder to deflect and teams once thought to be basement dwellers become surprise contenders.

Cal forced USC to overtime in 2010. UCLA forced USC to make a miraculous last-minute goal in order to celebrate in their home pool a year ago. But it may have been Pacific -- a team that had never before reached the championship game -- that provided the Trojans with their toughest test yet. The Tigers came in with a simple plan: play aggressive, force the Trojans to commit exclusion fouls, and then score during the 6-on-5 play and penalty shot opportunities.

For much of the game the plan worked, thanks in large part to their senior juggernaut Balasz Erdelyi. The Eger, Hungary import averaged 3.4 goals per game and beat USC's top scorer, Nikola Vavic, to win the Cutino Trophy, the water polo equivalent of the Heisman. Erdelyi scored seven goals in the final, three of them from penalty shots.

USC had no answer for his pinpoint-accurate shooting, meaning it had to rely on its offense to keep them in the game. The usual 1-2 SC punch of Nikola Vavic and Kostas Genidounias was there as usual, but other players got their shining moments as well.

Ivan Kustic scored a pair of crucial goals before fouling out to keep the Trojans within reach. James Clark struggled to stop Erdelyi throughout the game, but became a brick wall in overtime. Then there was Mace Rapsey, who stood tall on defense against Pacific's physical play despite the pain from a broken rib.

All of these elements were in play with 3:30 left in regulation and USC trailing 10-8. Knowing they needed to score quickly, USC drew an exclusion penalty and converted in under twenty seconds with Nikola Vavic scoring the goal. Then, after a defensive stop, Genidounias passed a ball to Kustic on the left side, who hit the far side of the net despite shooting from a tough angle. Finally, Vavic passed the ball down to his old roommate Jeremy Davie, who scored to give USC an 11-10 lead. But with 29 seconds left, Erdelyi struck again, scoring on a 6-on-5 to send the game into overtime as the lights at Avery Aquatic Center were turned on.

The first OT period went by without a goal, as Clark and Pacific goalie Alex Malkis both blocked shots to keep Erdelyi and Vavic off the board. But in the second period, Nikola Vavic scored his 254th and final goal as a Trojan, knocking a shot in the right side of the net. Pacific drew two more 6-on-5s and tried to level the score again, but Clark made two clutch blocks to deny them, and after a final steal by Genidounias, USC played keepaway while the seconds counted down until their sixth annual championship pool party.

Usually, Jovan Vavic jumps right in alongside his players, but this year, he stood by the pool in amazement at what he had just witnessed. Once again, his boys had reached deep down and pulled out another clutch win, and his son, now ending his collegiate career with the most goals in school history, had scored the game-winner.

"I was so shocked that I actually didn't experience the great emotion that you usually experience when you win a championship, I just couldn't believe we won," he said after the game, "It doesn't get old, it really doesn't. When that buzzer was off I still couldn't believe it. It really didn't look like we would win that game."

But finally, Vavic's players and coaches dragged him into the water to join in the celebration. Even in a season where they sometimes looked vulnerable, the Trojans had done it again.

Vavic's brand of intense, disciplined coaching has brought unparalleled success regardless of who he sends into the pool. Next year, he will attempt to do it again without a talented group of starting seniors, including his son, Clark, Davie and Rapsey. He will also try to lead the women's water polo team to back-to-back titles to become the first school to land a championship double in consecutive years.

And just like before, the Trojans will have their vulnerable moments, and their rivals will be tougher than ever. But the formula for success remains the same, and it wouldn't be surprising if, many years from now, Jovan Vavic leaves Dean Cromwell's title count in the dust and creates a legacy so immense he gets the pool at USC named after him.

NCAA Championship - M Water Polo - USC vs UoP (via USCAthletics)