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Paige Hauschild's hat trick helps USC defeat UCLA and earn spot in water polo title game

Paige Hauschild could have easily been wearing a different shade of Cardinal red in Sunday's NCAA women's water polo championship match between USC and Stanford.

There aren't many choices for an elite prospect in this top-heavy sport, and when Hauschild examined the options, her influences were pointing her north. Her club coach in Santa Barbara, Cathy Neushul, had sent her two daughters to play at Stanford, and it was naturally assumed Hauschild would follow them to Palo Alto. The Trojans, even coming off a 2016 national championship, were an afterthought, but Hauschild accepted an official visit offered by USC coach Jovan Vavic.

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Saturday, in the national semifinals against UCLA, it was hard to imagine her anywhere else. Hauschild's hat trick lifted the top-seeded Trojans to a 10-6 victory over the Bruins and into the place they knew deep down they'd end up all season — in the NCAA final against archival Stanford, in their home pool at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center.

Hauschild chose USC because she wanted to be pushed harder. Because she wanted to be a national champion and, later, an Olympian. And it was Vavic, known most for his intensity during his quarter century leading the Trojans, whom she knew could get her there.

"It's for sure challenging," Hauschild said, "to really take in what he was saying and kind of ignore his delivery sometimes and say, 'I need this.' If he's grilling me about something, it just kind of makes me upset, I get defensive, and then I realize I have to swallow my pride."

Whatever she's doing to handle Vavic, it's working. Saturday, she became the top-scoring true freshman in program history with 67 goals. When she and Vavic learned of her accomplishment, they happened to be sitting next to each other at the postgame news conference. Vavic, the emotional Yugoslavian, immediately leaned over and kissed her on her right cheek.

"Congrats," Vavic said. "I didn't know."

"I didn't know, either," she said.

Hauschild's freshman scoring record was one thing. It hasn't been announced officially, but she is also one of three finalists for the Peter J. Cutino Award, given annually to the national player of the year. USC junior goalie Amanda Longan and Stanford sophomore driver Makenzie Fischer are the other finalists.

Hauschild's performance is not exactly out of nowhere. Last summer, she competed with the U.S. senior national team and would appear headed toward representing her country in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But nobody could have expected her to come this far so fast.

"To be honest with you, I didn't think that she was this good," Vavic said. "When I watched her play in high school, she was good, but not this good. She is just one of the best freshmen that ever played Division I water polo. She is dominant in every aspect. Defense. Offense. Finishing. She never loses a sprint. She's just a complete player. I'm very fortunate that she chose us and is playing for us."

UCLA coach Adam Wright said Hauschild has a "unique arm."

"You have to give her credit," Wright said. "It's not easy to do it when you're under pressure, and she's able to do it. And she's only a freshman. So we have to deal with that for three more years."

How good could Hauschild be in three years? Vavic will enjoy finding out. But first, Stanford, and a shot at USC's sixth national championship. Last year, the Trojans lost to the Cardinal, who have won five of the last eight NCAA titles, in the national semifinals. But, of course, USC didn't have Hauschild.

"Jovan forces her to step up when we need her," Longan said. "I've seen her accept that pressure time and time again. I've definitely seen Paige grow into her own skin here, and she's been more comfortable shooting the ball than I've ever seen her in the past."

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Twitter: @BradyMcCollough

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