The first five years of Brianna Daboub's water polo career explain quite a bit about how she emerged as a three-year team captain for USC's powerhouse program.
"I played coed until I went to high school," Daboub said. "And when I say coed, I was pretty much the only girl on the team."
At 9 years old, Daboub, a native of Newport Beach, walked three houses down the block to join the Newport Hills pool's club program with her brothers Anthony and Evan. It didn't faze her that she was the lone girl on the team, and she never felt as if her teammates or opponents let up against her.
She thinks they had a good reason for that.
"It's mostly because, if they were to do that, they'd look silly because I wouldn't hesitate to take advantage of that," Daboub said. "If they were to take it easy on me, they'd look bad."
Throughout this weekend at the NCAA women's water polo championships, hosted by No. 1 seed USC at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center, nothing will come easy for Daboub and the Trojans. USC, the favorite to win its second national title in three years, faces Wagner in the quarterfinals Friday at noon with a likely semifinal match coming Saturday against rival UCLA, the No. 4 seed, which takes on Pacific at 1:45.
Daboub, viewed by her coach and teammates as the heartbeat of this USC program since she arrived from Mater Dei High School four years ago, can't believe these will likely be her last days in the pool.
"It's going to be very difficult," Daboub said. "I'm just trying to enjoy the time that we have."
Water polo has been everything to her and her family since that day she and her brothers picked up the sport 12 years ago. Daboub's older brother by two years, Anthony, earned a scholarship to UCLA and won a national championship during his senior year in 2015. That title was won in UCLA's home pool — a feat that Daboub is hoping to replicate this weekend.
Anthony and Brianna have always been training partners and still talk polo, even though Anthony has moved on to a construction career in Brentwood. Brianna looks back on her days playing with her brothers and the other boys fondly.
"The guys play a much more aggressive style in terms of taking chances and wanting to beat somebody one on one than the girls do," Daboub said, "and I think that really helped me out going into high school, because I knew how to do that. Maybe it's just because I'm incredibly competitive, I never felt I was getting beat by the guys. I always wanted to be the best player on the team."
USC coach Jovan Vavic was impressed by the toughness Daboub developed playing against boys, but it was just one part of why she became the top target for him in her recruiting class. There was a big potential snag in his plan, though: her brother was a Bruin, and Daboub had been a fixture around the UCLA program for years.
"We wanted Bri, big time," Vavic said. "She was physical, she was intelligent, she was aware. Unfortunately, they never won a title at Mater Dei, so she was hurting to win. I liked that."
The chance to be coached by Vavic ultimately swayed Daboub not to follow Anthony to Westwood.
"I wanted to make my decision for myself," Daboub said. "Jovan's an incredible coach, on a level of his own. I really admired his ability to create a team."
After only one year with USC, Daboub was voted team captain. She backed up her teammates' belief by leading them to a national championship her sophomore season.
She has known for four years that USC would be hosting this championship on her final weekend of collegiate water polo. It's finally here.
"All these big matchups, she's always the first person to step up when we need someone," said USC junior goalie Amanda Longan. "She's probably the bravest one on our team going into this. She's not scared of anything, because at the end of the day, she knows it's about what the sport means to us, and I know it means a lot to her."
Daboub wants to be an osteopathic doctor and has applied to USC's medical school. So, she hopes to stay around the program. While she is prepared that she will play her final water polo game this weekend, Vavic would like people to know that is her choice.
"No question in my mind Bri could play in the Olympics," Vavic said. "If she wanted to. It's a road that takes quite a bit of commitment. But I look at the girls from my team in the past that went to the Olympics, and there's no question that Bri has everything that a player needs to be an Olympian."