This time last year, the USC women’s water polo team was all smiles as they jumped into the pool in Cambridge, Mass. to celebrate a national championship in a record-long three-overtime 10-9 victory over Stanford. This year, tears filled the faces of many of the Women of Troy as the season—and many careers— came to an unsatisfying conclusion.
Head coach Jovan Vavic sent a message in his post game press conference following Friday’s opening-round victory over UC Irvine. After being upset in the first-round of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament two weeks ago by Arizona State, Vavic emphasized that the Women of Troy were not going to be deterred and are ready to focus on the present.
“If you want to play and not have pressure on you, go somewhere else. This is why you train all year long. This is why you put all the time and effort. This is what water polo is all about,” said the 12-time national coach of the year Vavic. “This is what we live for—this is what I live for. When I stop living for this I am going to stop coaching.”
Playing host to the NCAA tournament in the newly renovated Uytengsu Aquatics Center, USC embarked on the final stint of their title defense with a first-round battle against six-seeded UC Irvine.
“We have been preparing [for the NCAA tournament] the entire season—since May 10 last year,” said Vavic. “All the games that we went through this year mean nothing. This is the playoffs. This is a new day and this is the time that you need to play your best.”
Entering the tournament as the three-seed, the Women of Troy (26-4) had dominated the Anteaters in the season’s two previous meetings, including a 16-5 rout in the most recent matchup in early April. Fueled with the same emotion running through the coach’s statements, Friday’s action was not much different for USC.
Despite a slow offensive start, the Cardinal and Gold jumped out to a 2-1 lead by the end of the first quarter that transformed into a 6-4 advantage entering intermission. Junior driver Monica Vavic netted two goals in the half—tallying three on the day—to lead USC in scoring.
Although the Anteaters kept it close for the first half, the Women of Troy displayed their offensive versatility in the third quarter. Beginning with a beautifully placed lob shot by senior co-captian Kaleigh Gilchrist that ricocheted off the far post just 35 seconds in, USC struck for five goals in the period and gained a lead they wouldn’t relinquish, defeating UCI 14-11 and advancing to the National Semifinals for the third-straight year.
Behind 10 different USC scorers, the Women of Troy improved their record against the Anteaters since the 2000-’01 season to 19-0 and earned a spot in the national semi-finals against crosstown-rival UCLA.
The two squads split the season series, 1-1, with USC’s loss coming in the regular-season finale, when UCLA edged out a 6-4 victory. Saturday’s final four clash mirrored the late season matchup between the squads, as stout defense on both sides of the pool limited offensive production.
Trailing 2-1 entering the second quarter, USC was able to spark some offensive life as Vavic punched in a 5-meter penalty shot that was awarded after sophomore two-meter Jayde Appel was hounded in front of the cage. The equalizer, however, would not hold for long, as the Bruins answered with back-to-back strikes to polish off the half with a 4-2 advantage. “I think we didn’t completely execute our plan.
I know we have been working a lot on our 6-on-5,” said junior driver Jennifer Stiefel about the lack of offensive production. “We needed to put those away. Also, off the cross passes we should have looked for those some more to beat the goalie.”
Bursting out in the third quarter, the Women of Troy drew closer with yet another 5-meter penalty goal that was bounced into the right side of the cage by freshman driver Stephania Haralabidis. Unfortunately for the enthusiastic Trojan supporters in attendance, the UCLA defense buckled down and kept USC off the scoreboard for the remaining 13 minutes, delivering the Women of Troy a 5-3 loss and eliminating hopes of back-to-back national championships.
“People who never win don’t understand it. It takes a lot of work and time and blood and sweat and its just not easy,” said a somber coach Vavic. “I am proud of my girls. They battled, they played hard and they never quit. Sometimes the ball just doesn’t go your way."
After being knocked out of contention of capturing the program’s fifth national title and USC’s 100th NCAA championship (which it looks like USC Women's Golf or Men's Tennis could accomplish), the Women of Troy squared off with a fourth-seeded University of California team for third place on Sunday afternoon.
Winning both of the season’s meetings against the Golden Bears by a score of 12-7, the Women of Troy responded from the disappointing semi-final loss with a statement victory against Cal behind a first-half hat trick by junior drive Eike Daube, USC pulled away behind a five goal third quarter to gain a commanding lead entering the final period.
Beginning the fourth quarter with all seniors in the pool as they played their final game for USC, the Women of Troy tacked on another goal that propelled them to an eventual 11-8 victory over the Golden Bears and a third place trophy.
“They showed lots of heart today—lots of determination and poise,” said the veteran coach Vavic. “They were tough. What it says is that we are a championship caliber team.”
With six players graduating this year, including the program’s all-time saves leader, goalie Flora Bolonyai, and MPSF first-team two-meter Kaleigh Gilchrist, the Women of Troy will be looking for new leadership next season.
“We need to improve our hunger for getting to that championship and we need to start from today,” said Daube with confidence.
“We have a big group coming in and we just need to start teaching them and getting them ahead of pace so that we can be ready for next season.”
Despite concluding the season without the same hardware they were able to hoist in the air last year, the Women of Troy understand that this team means more than a trophy.
“Being a part of the Trojan family is something special that only people who are part of it truly understand,” said the co-captain Gilchrist. “I have gained sisters for life through my teammates and its something I will never forget. We will be friends for a long time.”
With a third-place season in the books, USC now begins its hunt for the 2015 NCAA national championship.