USC’s turn to host to the NCAA men’s water polo final four for the first time this weekend comes with one caveat – visitors may get dunked.
Wet weather is also expected for the weekend anyway, but having survived the gauntlet of competition to capture the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation title, the 27-0 Trojans can point toward an unprecedented fifth straight NCAA championship with a seemingly easier path.
As the No. 1 seed and top-ranked team in the country, USC has only to dispose of No. 4 seeded /No. 10 ranked Air Force (19-10, the Western Water Polo Association winner and automatic qualifer) in the first semifinal today (1 p.m., McDonald’s Swim Stadium) to set up a probable rematch against rival and No. 2 seed/No. 2 ranked UCLA (27-4), which faces No. 3 seed/No. 11 ranked St. Francis of Brooklyn (16-8, the Collegiate Water Polo Association Eastern Championship winner and automatic qualifier) in the other semifinal at 3 p.m.
The Trojans outlasted the Bruins, 7-4, in last year’s NCAA title game but didn’t have to face their crosstown rivals in the recent MPSF final – also played in USC’s home pool — because No. 3 ranked Cal knocked off UCLA in the semifinals, while the Trojans were stopping No. 4 ranked Stanford.
USC coach Jovan Vavic expects his team’s focus to be on Air Force instead of looking ahead.
“We have been in similar situations this year in tournaments where we’d play a lower seed early, so we know how to prepare, scout the opponent, know its strengths and weaknesses,” said Vavic, who has won seven national titles with the USC men and three with the Trojans women water polo teams.
“There are no letdowns when you go to a national championship round. In sports, anything in possible. No one expected the U.S. hockey team to win gold in 1980, right? But they did, and they were a much bigger underdog than Air Force is against us.”
For the eighth straight year, USC leads the nation in defense, averaging 5.67 goals-against per game. On offense, Vavic’s son, junior Nikola Vavic, has a team-best 79 goals, and USC’s 14.3 goals a game average leads the MPFS.
USC, 11-0 at home this season, has a 27-game home win streak going back to October, 2010.
A win over Air Force will put USC into its eight consecutive NCAA title match, never accomplished before in men’s water polo.