The last time the USC men’s water polo team won a national championship most of the players had mustaches.
Senior Zach D’Sa remembers. He streamed the 2013 game on his laptop as a high school junior and leaped from his bed when the Trojans won their sixth consecutive title, howling and jumping around his room.
“I celebrated like I was there, basically,” D’Sa said, adding, “My parents thought I was going crazy.”
USC has been to 13 championship games in a row but has lost the last four — a turn in luck that correlated with a rise in clean-shaven players. D’Sa, who began streaming USC games in 2005, made the connection and began growing his mustache two months ago.
Going into the 5 p.m. semifinal matchup against UCLA on Saturday, the majority of the Trojans have varying degrees of mustaches, depending on how well they can grow them.
“Them doing this with me, it makes me feel like this team is so close,” D’Sa said, “and that everyone’s in it together.”
The superstition will be tested against the Bruins, who are trying to win their fourth title in five years. The rivals have faced each other twice in less than a month, splitting the previous games.
UCLA’s four seniors were there for the team’s three national titles since 2014. Each redshirted and most received playing time sparingly as underclassmen, but they persisted.
“Consistently, continually putting themselves behind the team,” coach Adam Wright said, adding: “It’s a group of seniors who know their role … and their role is gonna be damn important on Saturday.”
Senior Austin Rone may be feeling nervous about the semifinal but his experience reassures him. He shared his knowledge with younger players and reminded them to treat the tournament games like any other matchup.
“It’s just nice to be a Bruin, to be a part of that history and know that, in some way, shape or form, you’re adding on to that history and leaving your own mark,” Rone said.
D’Sa and junior Danny Leong are the only Trojans graduating after this season. D’Sa grew from his national championship game experiences, too, but the lesson was different.
“How to deal with loss,” he said. “Because you come so close every single time, and you always expect to win it, and that’s not life. You don’t always win everything.”
This is D’Sa’s last chance to win a title for the school at which his grandfather played, at the school his mother, aunts and uncles, grandparents and great-grandparents attended.
“It’s everything that I’ve been working for,” D’Sa said of winning a championship. “It would mean everything.”
He told his teammates as much on senior day. As the team captain, D’Sa gives a speech before every game, but one before defeating UCLA particularly struck junior Sam Slobodien.
The Trojans admire D’Sa for his humor, positivity and leadership, Slobodien said. D’Sa energizes the team with passionate words while setting the tone with his actions. Slobodien realized that the team had only a few more games with D’Sa at the helm.
“We all decided together to play for Zach,” Slobodien said.
Of the three championship games, last year’s loss at home to UCLA was among the hardest to stomach for Slobodien and D’Sa. In 2012, D’Sa watched a similar moment from the front row of the USC stands, when the Trojans defeated the Bruins in the national championship.
The howling fans and intense atmosphere awed him.
“That whole time I was thinking, ‘I can’t wait to go to USC and start doing this myself,’ ” D’Sa said.
The Trojans fell two goals short of the title in 2017, and D’Sa watched the Bruins celebrate in front of USC fans in the Trojans’ pool.
Slobodien replayed that moment in his mind all season, fueling his motivation. He said an intense desire for victory sets these USC players apart from past teams. The Trojans are emboldened by years of disappointment.
“It’s like a reborn energy,” Slobodien said. “Everyone really, really wants to win, and you can just feel it.”