For all the excitement and grand scale of the BCS National Championship or the Final Four, there’s something particularly special about an NCAA championship in a non-revenue sport that’s hosted on the campus of one of the teams playing for the title. When such a big game is hosted so close to home, students that usually only go to football or basketball games all buy tickets and create a special atmosphere for the players that have spent months playing games for hundreds of people instead of thousands.
Last spring, USC had the opportunity to host and compete in the national championship game for Men’s Volleyball at the Galen Center against UC Irvine. I had attended several games during the season, and with the exception of the game against UCLA, the attendance for the games rarely exceeded 1,500. But for this game, USC and UCI fans sold out the Galen Center and created the loudest atmosphere I have ever seen at a USC game in that building. It was a football game atmosphere for a volleyball game, and it was quite a sight.
On Sunday, USC got to enjoy that special atmosphere once again, as USC’s men’s water polo team competed for its fifth consecutive national championship in their home pool at McDonald Swim Stadium. And what’s more, they would be facing their crosstown rivals, UCLA.
Every seat around the pool was packed. Both schools brought a fifteen-piece band to blare their fight songs after every goal. The bleachers set up behind the pool were filled with USC students, while UCLA formed a student section along the upper seats behind the teams’ benches. I was surrounded by Song Girls, yell leaders, reserve players, and alumni from the water polo team. Even USC punter Kyle Negrete showed up to cheer on the team.
The game began, and the alumni and reserve players started chanting the names and nicknames of all the players on the team. “RO-SIE! RO-SIE!” they would chant for fifth-year senior Michael Rosenthal as he sprinted to the ball at the start of each quarter. “NI-KO-LA!” they would chant for Nikola Vavic, son of head coach Jovan Vavic and the top scorer for USC this season. Eventually the yell leaders and some of the other students got the hint and joined in the chants.
But in the first quarter, there wasn’t a lot to celebrate. USC scored the first goal, but the Bruins responded with four unanswered goals to take a 4-1 lead. After a goal exchange to close out the first period, UCLA had a 5-2 lead and SC was in trouble.
In the second period, USC staged a rally to get back in the game, scoring four straight goals of their own to take a 6-5 lead. Unfortunately, that lead would not last long, as the Trojans killed their own momentum with three straight contra fouls (offensive fouls that result in a turnover), allowing UCLA to dominate possession and retake the lead 8-6 at halftime.
During the halftime break, I started noticing some of the more – ahem—boisterous fans I was sitting with. One such example was Philip Parks, the Westside Rentals guy. Parks is a staple at sports games across L.A. He’s been everywhere, from the NBA Finals to high school basketball games in Compton. And there he was, getting his groove on every time either school’s marching band played a tune. Eventually, a middle-aged USC fan who was also dancing stepped up to the pool deck and challenged him to a dance-off in front of all the fans. This could be the first time in history that two wacky dudes in even wackier outfits have upstaged the SC Song Girls at dancing.
So the third period began, and USC started to work its way back into the game, ending the period with a one-goal deficit. After allowing eight goals in the first half, the Trojans’ defense woke up and held UCLA to only one goal in the third quarter. James Clark, the USC goalkeeper and member of the Australian Olympic team, deflected shot after shot while the other players kept the Bruins from getting the ball into the two-meter sweetspot directly in front of the goal.
Now the stage was set. With six minutes left in the game, the score was tied, 9-9. For the next three minutes, no shot would find the back of the net. It was starting to look like the next goal would be the game-winner.
Then, with three minutes left, UCLA bounced in a skip shot to take a 10-9 lead, and there was dead silence in the SC student section. Is this it? Would SC be able to come back? I don’t think anyone even breathed during the next possession. It was dead silence as everyone watched the pool intently.
Then USC scored, and as the student let out a roar of relief, the alumni knew exactly which player scored the equalizer. “RO-SIE! RO-SIE! RO-SIE!” went the chant, and this time every person wearing cardinal and gold joined in. A minute later, Clark made another big time save to give USC possession with 46 seconds left in a tied game.
The team huddled together, and Coach Jovan, who is unquestionably the best coach on the USC campus right now, admitted he wasn’t sure what to do. That’s when senior Tobias Preuss suggested a play called “Candy.” The rest of the team agreed, they drew it up and swam back out.
The whistle blew, and senior Matt Burton took the ball. He waited four seconds for his target to get open. At the right moment, he passed it down left to Kostas Genidounias. Kostas is a sophomore from Athens that had scored 69 goals for the Trojans this season, but through the whole game the Bruins had left him off of the scoring sheet. But this time, Kostas picked up the ball, eyed the left side of the net, and launched his shot.
The ball went in. The play took about six seconds.
And that’s when my ears blew out.
Students began jumping up and down. The Song Girls lost all sense of composure. The yell leaders chest bumped. I got jostled around by the big, burly reserve players that were jumping into each other’s arms. And suddenly, all that joyful chaos organized itself as quickly as it had ignited and formed one loud cry.
DE-FENSE! *Clap Clap* DE-FENSE! *Stomp Stomp*
And then, thirty seconds later, USC stole possession from UCLA on their last scoring opportunity. I stood frozen, watching in disbelief as the Trojans tossed the ball out of the Bruins’ reach as the final seconds ticked away. The final buzzer sounded, the scoreboard read 11-10, and for the fifth straight year, Coach Jovan and his players jumped into the pool in celebration.
And that’s when I finally joined in the euphoria. Screaming, jumping up and down, hugging strangers, you name it. I almost ran into the pool, but some lingering thread of rationality that had survived in my brain convinced me otherwise. Instead, I ran up to the catch net behind the goal and shook it with all my might as I watched the Trojans celebrate with their coaches, reserves, and a few spectators that did jump in the pool, including Kyle Negrete.
Without a doubt, that national championship game was one of the most heart-pounding and insane games I have ever seen in any sport. To have a rivalry game between two schools that love to beat each other in the city they are both located in with the national title on the line is a recipe for fireworks, and that’s exactly what we got on Sunday.
Football will always reign supreme in USC Athletics, but as the students who usually fill the Coliseum seats chanted and cheered for the players who usually compete before a small audience, I felt proud to have seen this water polo team get the recognition it deserves for the underwater dynasty it has created – and be King of Troy for a day.