A USC team that’s held the No. 1 spot since preseason polls … and Vavic keeps them above water

USC coach Jovan Vavic instructs his team during Saturday’s NCAA water polo semifinal victory over Air Force. (Dan Avila/USC Sports Information)

So what if it’s not a fair comparison. We’ll make it anyway.

Just watch how Jovan Vavic, in the dark sunglasses and white shirt,
methodically works his side of the pool at USC’s McDonald’s Swim
Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

“Spread out, spread out,” he instructs his team, even as they’re up
by 10 goals in the closing minutes. He calls a time out as the other
team scores a couple of late goals, needing to regroup.

Composed, calculating and consumed with the moment, he’s coaxing as much as he can out of his already dominant Trojans water polo squad that, in a couple hours time, earned its way back into the NCAA championship for the eighth season in a row.

The opportunity is sitting there to capture an unprecedented fifth
consecutive title, the capper to another undefeated season.

It makes you wonder how this 50-year-old native of Yugoslavia would
look on the sidelines at the Coliseum on any other fall Saturday
afternoon, directing the Trojans’ football program.

“If he knew Xs and Os of football like he does with water polo, no
doubt he could coach it — or any other sport,” USC senior captain
Matt Burton said after the Trojans came back from a somewhat slow
start but got refocused into rattling off their 28th win in a row
Saturday, 18-7, over Air Force.

As a result, the No. 1 ranked and top-seeded Trojans return to their
home pool to scratch and claw it out again with crosstown rival UCLA,
ranked No. 2 and seeded second after a 17-3 win over an over-matched St. Francis of Brooklyn squad in Saturday’s other semi that, in many ways, played out as mere formality.

Vavic’s history, for what it’s worth, started over in Westwood, an
assistant at UCLA as he earned a bachelor’s degree in history in the
early ’90s. The next season, USC lured him over for its program,
making him the head man a couple years later, then asking him to
create a women’s program in 1995. They won a title four years later.
In all of 18 years, Vavic has won more than 85 percent of his games,
collecting seven NCAA championship plaques with the men (the first in 1998) and three more with the women. Ten national coach of the year awards. Just installed as the interim coach of the men’s U.S. national team as it gears up for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.

Vavic is, by all measures, Wooden-esque in land-locked South Central L.A.

At a time when it looks like USC’s football program is trying to tread water, the water polo team continues to make the biggest splash in a sport few bother to check out.

Look at it this way – the USC water polo team came into this season
ranked No. 1. It never gave the spot up.

Sound unfamiliar?

Burton – who wears No. 7 and might be mistaken around campus for Matt Barkley — admits he almost went to UCLA after a recruiting trip
during his senior season at Mira Costa High in Manhattan Beach. All
things considered, playing for Vavic was a difference maker.
It means Burton is one win from landing his fifth NCAA title ring -
he had a redshirt season after playing a couple games as a junior but
needing to sit out because of an injury. Barkley leaves the football
program with no rings, captain of a team heading for the Sun Bowl as
a supposed consolation prize.

“I knew he was going get the best out of me,” Burton said of Vavic.
“Others tried to tell me it might have been a better ‘experience’ to
go to another school.

“I remember one of the first things about him was when I went to one
of his camps. We were playing in a co-ed game, and there was this
much younger girl trying to guard me. So at one point, I got the
ball, half-turned on her and scored a goal. And Coach just started
yelling at the girl. I felt so bad for her.”

Turned out, the young lady was Vavic’s daughter, Monica, now one of
the top scorers for USC’s women’s water polo team.

Funny that Burrton’s teammate the last three seasons on the Trojans’
men’s team has been Vavic’s son, Nikola, a junior who scored three
times in USC’s win Saturday to give him 83 goals, a new school
single-season mark.

Still, coach Vavic wasn’t all that impressed by his team’s semifinal
performance.

“Offensively we were sloppy,” he said. “It is hard to play in this
game when you are expected to win, you look ahead and I think we did
that. Our focus just wasn’t there.”

These finals are still “not a stressful time” for him, he says.

“Really, this is the time when you enjoy it. This is why you play,
why you go to USC, to have this opportunity and finish against UCLA.
“These players need no carrot. The task at hand each day is to finish
practice, do what needs to be done. We don’t make any special
arrangements.”

Not when you’re already well conditioned, well versed in
fundamentals, and have some history on your side.

This isn’t the time when Vavic has someone deflate balls just before
the match, change up the numbers on the roster or dance around injury information.

Air Force’s Jeff Heidmous, on the losing end Saturday, may have said it best on what it’s like having to go up against a Vavic team:

“The Xs and Os are one part of it, but he has taken a holistic
approach to recruiting, to conditioning. It’s an 11-month schedule he
has starting in January, and he’s very demanding.

“I remember one of his players saying after winning an NCAA title
with him — he said that from his experience (with Vavic), he could
work for any boss.

“It’s kind of like when you go to play for Bobby Knight in basketball
- you know what you’re getting into and you’ll be better afterward.
To sustain a program like his, you need a strong foundation. If it
was weak, he would have been one-and-done long ago.

“He’s a model for all of us to emulate.”

When’s the last time you heard anyone say that about Lane Kiffin?

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