LOS ANGELES, CA – In order to create a little more space for itself in the history books, the USC men’s water polo team pieced together a dramatic 11-10 victory over crosstown rival UCLA today to extend the Trojans’ national championship streak to five in a row and finish their 2012 campaign a perfect 29-0. This epic rematch of the 2011 NCAA final — where USC made history as the first-ever men’s water polo team to win four straight titles — was a far cry from last year’s comparatively lopsided victory. Playing in the Trojans’ own home pool at the McDonald’s Swim Stadium, which begins renovation as the Uytensgu Aquatics Center in 2013, offered the opportunity for both Los Angeles-based schools to pack the house with fans and crank up the intensity beyond expectations.
The final whistle brought an end to possibly the most dramatic final in Trojan memory, as USC trailed by as much as three goals in the first period and was down two in the third, and also trailed in the fourth. Each time, the Trojans found a way to battle back. A 4-0 run gave USC a slim 6-5 lead during the second period, but UCLA answered back with three straight to shove the Trojans out of the way again. The Bruins were the aggressors throughout. Even when USC locked up the game at 9-9 on a blast from Matt Burton early in the fourth period, UCLA had another go-ahead answer. The Bruins led 10-9 with 3:09 to go, heaping pressure on the hosts and defenders of four straight titles.
That championship confidence seemed to win out for the Trojans over the pressure of keeping USC’s undefeated 2012 season intact in front of countless fans. With 2:25 to go, Michael Rosenthal ripped in his third goal of the game for the fourth draw of the game. USC goalie James Clark came up with a clutch save next, and the USC defense held strong to get the ball back. The Bruins had managed to keep USC’s No. 2 scorer, sophomore Kostas Genidounias, quiet on the scoring front during the game. At least, until the final minute of play. Burton found the hot-handed Genidounias for a searing score that gave USC an 11-10 lead with 40 ticks to go. It was the Trojans’ first lead since the 4:47 mark of the second period, and it was a big one. As UCLA found itself in unfamiliar territory, having been ahead or tied for all but barely two minutes of the game to that point, the Bruins scrambled to try to find an equalizer. Instead, the stubborn USC defense stood tall. Mace Rapsey nabbed a UCLA pass and got the ball to Rosenthal with just 15 seconds left, and USC was in the driver’s seat for the big win.
The 2012 national championship is the eighth in program history for the USC men, who have head coach Jovan Vavic at the helm for his 18th season. The perfect 29-0 finish marks just the second undefeated season for the Trojans, who went 29-0 in 2008 — when this national championship run first began. In all, the win is the university’s 118th national championship.
USC’s senior class came to play today, with a group of players who have been with the program since 2008. Redshirt seniors Matt Burton and Michael Rosenthal combined for five goals in today’s win. Senior Tobias Preuss, who joined the Trojans in 2010, also scored a big one today — the go-ahead goal in the second frame. Rosenthal and his three-goal game today secured him as the NCAA Tournament MVP. Joining him on the All-Tournament First Team was junior Nikola Vavic, who set the program record for single-season goals with 83 this year, including one today, and the game-winner Kostas Genidounias. On the All-Tournament Second Team from the USC squad was Tobias Preuss, junior Mace Rapsey and goalie James Clark, who served up 10 saves in his first national championship as a Trojan.
On a day that swayed from clouds to rain to sunshine, the roller coaster ride started early. USC junior Connor Virjee’s unstoppable arm proved just that with a catapult on USC’s first possession for an early 1-0 USC lead. UCLA was less than impressed. The Bruins would rattle off four straight goals on the is hosts, leaving a dazed USC defense staring at a 4-1 deficit. Nikola Vavic found Matt Burton for a 6-on-5 shot from the post that snapped the UCLA run, but the Bruins had a quick answer and again took a three-goal advantage, up 5-2 in the final minute of the first. Virjee took matters into his own hands again, and rocketed one through to make it 5-3 and sparking a Trojan surge.
USC would manufacture three more goals to open the second period — a Michael Rosenthal nearside bullet, a Vavic blindsider and a booming blast from Tobias Preuss to storm into the lead, up 6-5 with 4:47 to go in the first half. UCLA, again, was unfazed. Three straight Bruin goals would erase that hard work by the Trojans and take UCLA to an 8-6 lead at the break — the most first-half goals surrendered by the Trojans all season long.
So then, it was time to kickstart the USC defense. After a Rosenthal power skip cut the lead to one in the third, UCLA again padded out its lead to two. On a Trojan 6-on-5, USC worked the ball through Preuss and Vavic to find Rapsey for a close-range score to again pull within one. UCLA would take a 9-8 lead into the fourth period, which opened with a Rosenthal steal at 2-meters to get the ball into USC hands. That’s when Burton came up big with goal number two to equalize early, and the Trojans would keep their eyes on a fifth straight prize to pull out the dramatic win. USC outscored UCLA 5-2 in the second half to power up that championship comeback push.
SCORING: UCLA – Bret Lathrope 2, Danny McClintick 2, Josh Samuels 2, Chris Fahlsing, Paul Reynolds, Lucas Reynolds, Daniel Lenhart. USC – Michael Rosenthal 3, Connor Virjee 2, Matt Burton 2, Nikola Vavic, Tobias Preuss, Mace Rapsey, Kostas Genidounias.