USC

After ‘traumatic’ loss of coach, USC is even more determined to win water polo title

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - MAY 13: The USC Trojans celebrate defeating the Stanford Cardinal 5-4 to win t
The USC women’s water polo team celebrates after defeating Stanford and winning the NCAA women’s water polo championship at Uytengsu Aquatics Center on May 13, 2018.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Jovan Vavic’s old office is bare. The plaque beside the door that displayed the name of USC’s head water polo coach is gone.

USC’s coaching staff was too busy this week to pay much attention to the closed door, where the successful coach known for his vocal energy once worked. The top-ranked USC women’s team was preparing for the NCAA tournament, starting with a quarterfinal matchup against UC San Diego on Friday at Stanford.

Months after Vavic led the men’s team to its 10th national championship, the women will attempt to win a title without him.

Vavic was fired by the school in March hours after being charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering, one of a group of college coaches allegedly involved in a nationwide admissions scandal. A 15-time national coach of the year, Vavic guided the women’s team to all six of its national titles.

He was arrested while the team was in Hawaii for a game.

The Trojans are a tight-knit team. Losing their longtime leader was shocking, and painful. Casey Moon, who was named interim head coach in Vavic’s place, called it “traumatic” for the players.

But the defending national champions did not balk at the adversity. USC only lost one game all season, earning the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Five players have scored more than 30 goals this season, and senior goalie Amanda Longan has made the second-most career saves in program history.

“Obviously you can never prepare for this,” senior driver Courtney Fahey said. “And you don’t even think about it. But I would never have expected everybody to be as strong as they are. … Everyone’s just fully invested.”

The Trojans tried to ignore outside noise, but they heard the doubts of whether the program’s culture of winning would continue without Vavic.

So they turned to each other. Players and coaches expressed their emotions in team meetings and informal conversations. Athletes who were reserved in the past opened up to their teammates to cope.

“They’re the only people that are gonna understand what you’re kind of feeling inside,” Longan said, “and feel similar.”

The Trojans grew even closer when they realized that losing Vavic triggered a common response — a deepened determination to win the national championship. The women’s program has never won back-to-back titles.

To Longan, the team’s circumstances made achieving that this year more important than ever. “Even though he’s gone,” she said, “everything that we were built on, that passion to win, that extra drive, and the courage to step up and be a leader, continues on. And that we can still do that, regardless of the situation … that will continue on forever.”

The Trojans won in Hawaii, their first game without Vavic. But in their next game, they lost to then-No. 2 Stanford after giving up a three-goal lead in the fourth quarter. The one-goal overtime loss cost USC the No. 1 ranking.

It also was one of Longan’s proudest moments of the season. The Trojans were playing their first home game without Vavic. Even though they fell short, they displayed the grit that later pushed them to beat Stanford in the MPSF tournament and earn the No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament.

“We are a family, and we really felt like we lost a family member,” junior utility player Maud Megens said. “You can pick your, like, fight or flee … and I think the whole team immediately decided to fight.”

To fill the void of Vavic’s expertise, the Trojans ramped up their communication in practice. Older players offered constructive criticism to younger ones, and stayed after practice to fine-tune techniques one-on-one. They reminded each other to review film and study plays on their own while expressing confidence in the team.

Even more than before, they discussed their goals — an almost-daily conversation about the NCAA tournament. They reminded each other why they were working so hard, and what it would mean to win.

“Yes, this idea of motivation has always been there, but I think I notice it a little more now,” Moon said. “Like OK, well, now they have something to prove. You know, they have a chip on their shoulder.”

The result is a team that has surprised itself with its strength. If anything, Megens said, USC is playing better than it was before it lost Vavic.

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The Trojans are three wins away from their goal.

“It would really prove to us as a team that we can conquer all,” Megens said, “and that we beat the worst, because we beat this whole situation and we were able to make the best out of it.”

As Longan spoke about what it would mean to her to win, her eyes grew red and her voice quivered. Winning consecutive championships would be special, but she doesn’t see it as a personal accolade.

“I could care less about myself. I just … ” Longan said, pausing to take a deep breath. “I want everything for them, and for the coaches. And to let people know that, you know, our program is strong. And that’s how it was built to be.”

blake.richardson@latimes.com

@rblakerich_