Denise Mammolito could barely believe the news. Even though the USC water polo player was sitting in virtual class — a sign of the growing coronavirus outbreak — she couldn’t grasp that the novel virus could possibly take the NCAA championships away too.
They were still two months away, she reasoned. Then the feeling of shock only intensified when she noticed the date.
Exactly one year to the day after longtime head coach Jovan Vavic was fired for his role in the college admissions scandal, USC women’s water polo was dealt another devastating blow when the NCAA canceled winter and spring championships amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Trojans persevered through the first event, advancing to the NCAA final last year and falling by one goal to Stanford. Now they won’t even get the opportunity to beat the second one.
“The most frustrating part of all of this is the last four months, we’ve been working so hard toward this goal,” Mammolito said. “We’re all in peak shape right now and just for that to be taken away so suddenly, I think that’s the hardest part for all of us.”
The Trojans, hardened from the FBI scandal that rocked the program, were already prepared for more challenges this year. They knew they would be without four All-Americans who were on Olympic duty, but still earned the No. 1 ranking in preseason polls and maintained the distinction all year. Their only loss was to No. 2 UCLA on Feb. 9, and they avenged the result Feb. 22.
As stars Alejandra Aznar (Spain), Paige Hauschild (USA), Maud Megens (Netherlands) and Tilly Kearns (Australia) trained for their respective national teams, USC (12-1) relied on a balanced attack to remain title favorites.
Instead of Megens, who scored 19 more goals than the next leading scorer last season, sophomore Grace Tehaney and Mammolito led the offense with 29 and 23 goals, respectively.
Mammolito, a Rancho Cucamonga High alumna who scored 29 goals in 30 games last season, was one of several seniors head coach Marko Pintaric commended for stepping up when needed.
After limited playing time early in her career, Elise Stein stepped into a premier role and delivered 13 goals in as many games. She had a hat trick in USC’s win over Loyola Marymount on Feb. 1. Kelsey McIntosh, an All-Mountain Pacific Sports Federation honorable mention last year, had 19 goals, fourth-most on the team, while Kaylee Brownsberger doubled last year’s goal total with eight.
“We are missing four really good players, but the team adage is there’s always someone else who is going to step in and take their time,” Pintaric said. “We know what the team needs to accomplish in order to win games and I’m very proud of the seniors communicating that message. … They’re a big reason why we stayed and finished the season ranked No. 1.”
Pintaric said all of the seniors have expressed interest in returning next year since the NCAA announced additional eligibility for all spring sports athletes. He would like them to get a chance to finish their careers on the right note, especially after everything they’ve given to the program.
The coach credited the leadership of his seniors and assistant coaches for navigating the team through unprecedented events this year, but Mammolito called Pintaric “our rock through it all.”
“We’ve never been a situation like this,” Pintaric said. “It kind of requires a new type of mentality, new type of championship mentality where now it’s really important to take care of the families, take care of ourselves. They were heartbroken … but they understood.”
Although there are no practices and games, Pintaric affirms that he can always coach. He helps his two children with online school, while thinking about organizing his team’s future needs, learning about the game and researching future recruits. With his team dispersed, his first goal is to make sure they still stay connected. The unpredictable events of the last two seasons have taught the Trojans just how important that is.
“We’ve gone through insane things in the last two years and we just know that at the end of the day, your teammates are always going to have your back,” Mammolito said. “Our coaching staff, they just instill hard work and perseverance and we all know that if we stick together, we can overcome everything.”