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Column: USC women’s water polo team makes the best of ‘worst-case’ scenario after firing of coach

It became second nature to Casey Moon, impressed upon him during his playing days at UC Santa Cruz and reinforced during 12 seasons on USC’s water polo coaching staff, to believe there is one sure path to success. Work hard, be disciplined, and be ready for anything.

“You’ve got to prepare for the worst-case scenario. Try to prepare for every situation that comes about,” he said.

He found it to be true as associate coach of the Trojans’ women’s team and director of player personnel for the men’s team when they each won NCAA titles last year, as well as several championships before that. His mission this year was to help prepare the women to win consecutive titles for the first time.

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They were undefeated at spring break, seemingly on their way to a sixth NCAA title and seventh national championship. But then came the early-morning texts and phone calls that turned their annual training trip to Hawaii into an unexpected and unsettling drama.

The women were summoned to a team meeting and told that coach Jovan Vavic had been fired after being charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering, one of many people caught in the academic admissions scandal that has touched colleges around the nation.

Moon was appointed interim head coach, starting with the game against the University of Hawaii on March 16 in Honolulu. It was a lot to take in. “Everything happened so quickly. It was just kind of a whirlwind,” said Moon, who considers Vavic a mentor. “Can you ever prepare yourself for something like this?”

The Trojans recovered and won that game, improving to 20-0 and extending their winning streak to 36 over two seasons. On Saturday No. 1-ranked USC will play its first home game since the coaching change when it faces No. 2 Stanford at 2 p.m. at Uytengsu Athletic Center. It will be both familiar and different for Moon, 36.

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“Our program is about discipline and hard work, and I have the best girls in the world,” he said in a phone conversation this week. “They understand what this program stands for, and it helps that I have a lot of veterans returning so they can reiterate what the makeup of our team is and the staples we expect out of each player.

“So from a coaching aspect, am I nervous? No. It is a new arena, for sure. But during this entire process we always say, hey, we prepare you for worst-case scenario and next-man-up and one day at a time.”

That’s standard coach-speak. But it’s still comforting, and his composure has been soothing during a turbulent time. A USC athletic department representative said team members preferred not to speak to the media in advance of Saturday’s game but USC Athletics posted a video on Youtube in which several women discussed their surprise over what had happened and their determination to remain unified.

Vavic, who also had coached the men’s team to 10 NCAA titles, entered a plea of not guilty in federal court in Boston this week. Marko Pintaric was promoted from co-head coach to interim head coach for the USC men, whose competitive season is in the fall.

“I think Casey is a really big factor for us in keeping the team calm and making everybody feel comfortable and giving us some trust in this situation and some clarity,” junior Maud Megens said in the video. Freshman Tilly Kearns praised the guidance of the experienced players. “Each and every one of the girls stepped up into a role that they had to play to help us move forward,” she said.

Among the leaders is senior captain Courtney Fahey of Alamo, Calif. “The team is doing remarkably well,” she said in the video. “I think that we’re all a really strong group of girls and it’s really cool to see how this program has taught us about resilience, and how resilient every single one of the girls on this team really are.”

Arraignments Handed Down In Boston Court During First Phase Of College Admissions Scandal Case
Jovan Vavic, former water polo coach at USC, leaves following his arraignment at federal court in Boston on March 25.
(Scott Eisen / Getty Images)

They might not have bounced back so rapidly without that foundation of discipline and preparation. “Their leadership and what we’ve been preaching as a coaching staff, as a program, to them, they just kind of rallied around it,” Moon said. “What happened was out of their control. But I think the mood of the team was great. I think they have a little chip on their shoulder.”

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He hasn’t implemented new strategy because the team is thriving — the Trojans have outscored opponents 294-78 — and because stability is the best course now. “I think with the circumstances, whatever is going on, on the outside with distractions, for us to change too much I think it would hinder us as a team,” he said. “Also, our collective unity as a team is great, so we try to keep it as simple and the same as possible.”

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Even if they couldn’t prepare for what happened, the Trojans are adjusting to their new normal. “The one thing we want in our players is we want fighters. And we want selfless players. We want fighters that are selfless, that are going to do everything in their power to help the person next to them win,” Moon said.

They’ve turned a worst-case scenario into a new kind of triumph. “I think we trust our coaches and our teammates enough to use the adversity that we’ve had to overcome recently, and are still overcoming, to kind of use it as fuel to our fire,” senior captain Amanda Longan said in the video, “to make it even more important now that we win a national title than ever before.”

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen


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