This may seem much like the anxious nightmare you dreamt while sleeping late on the night of December 4th after the USC football team squeaked by cross-town rival UCLA, but this is a reality. Not for the football team and coach Pete Carroll, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, but for the USC Men's Water Polo team, and Coach Jovan Vavic, James Shin, and a host of other deserving players. This year, college football‘s version of an exclusive postseason actually benefited the Trojans. They weren't as lucky inside the pool as they were outside on the gridiron. In water polo‘s postseason, unlike college football, four teams actually get a shot at the national championship, but the current system in place doesn't include the number three-ranked Trojans and four-ranked Bears. Instead, a ten-loss Loyola Marymount team that USC beat 10-2 in October, and a tenth-ranked Princeton team gained automatic berths for the tournament played Saturday, December 4th, and Sunday, December 5th at Stanford University in Palo Alto. Only two of the top eight ranked teams in the country get a shot at this national championship. At least the BCS gives the number three, five, six and eight ranked teams some sort of postseason play.
The Trojans held a firm grip on the number three spot in the country for much of the year, but fell just short of a shot at the national championship in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (Remember, no Pac-10) Championship the last weekend of November. Simply by virtue of not reaching the MPSF Finals on Thanksgiving weekend, this highly-talented USC team that won more than 80 percent of its games was denied a shot at water polo glory and a chance at back-to-back championships.
Now, I am not suggesting that the NCAA remove the automatic berths it gives to the winner of the Collegiate Water Polo Association and the Western Water Polo Association, and simply replace them with the higher-ranked times. It was quite an achievement for Princeton to go 10-0 in their division and represent the CWPA as the champion of their 18-team conference. Cheers to Loyola Marymount, as well, who led by WWPA coach of the year John Loughran upset top-seeded UC San Diego in the championship of their own conference tournament.
These teams do deserve a rightful spot in the NCAA Championship tournament, and they also deserve the number two and three seeds behind the MPSF Tournament Champion, but other at-large teams deserve to play in this tournament. An eight-team tournament would truly suit this sport best, and to appease the larger but less mighty WWPA and CWPA, the NCAA could give all three conferences two automatic berths, and add two at-large berths, which would bring the total of teams to eight. This sport now includes 42 Division I teams, and in the current format, only 10 percent of the sport's teams participate in the postseason. In the fall's most popular college sport, football, 56 of Division I-A's 117 teams participate in the postseason. That's a little under fifty percent. Obviously, these teams do not participate in a playoff like that of water polo, but a place in the postseason gives lower-level teams something to build on for next season. How about collegiate athletics most popular winter sport, basketball. Division I has nearly 350 teams, but 65 of them make it to the Big Dance, which is right around 20 percent of the teams that start the season. In college hoops, there are upper and lower level conferences and teams playing in March. The lower-level teams and mid-majors are seeded lower, and they usually do lose to the powers from the big-time conferences, but at least they get a shot at glory and some momentum for the next season. With the sport's growing popularity, a larger playoff is essential. High schools throughout the state and country are adding water polo programs at breakneck speed, and Division I NCAA programs will continue to rise in number and popularity. The identity crisis of NCAA Water Polo, however, is a West Coast bias of a different form. The nation's top eight ranked teams are all in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, and even Loyola Marymount, which Stanford defeated 14-6 in the NCAA semis, beat the east coast representative Princeton, 6-5, in the consolation game.
Adding four teams to the tournament would add an extra game for each team, meaning each team would have a game on Friday as well. Some may think that a third game would be too grueling for young athletes during a single weekend. This is untrue. The MPSF Championship is a three-day tournament, and includes a full slate of consolation games to determine a team's final standing in the conference. USC even played in two different tournaments in which they played four matches in two days. Both the So-Cal and Nor-Cal tournaments, hosted at USC and the University of the Pacific in Stockton, respectively, scheduled teams to play twice Saturday and twice Sunday. The Trojans won the So-Cal tourney and finished third in Stockton.
This NCAA water polo postseason system, quite unlike the BCS, is open to change. Because water polo is a sport dominated by west coast schools, the national championship is predominantly played at Stanford. Every season the top four teams play in front of a Cardinal crowd at Stanford's Avery Aquatic Center. This is a virtual home game for the polo "dynasty," making it all that much harder for lesser programs to pull off an upset.
USC water polo coach Jovan Vavic agrees, saying, "There's no question it's an advantage. I don't not think it's fair for them to keep getting the championship." This year's championship drew over 3,000 fans, but Vavic thinks that any pool in California would attract a huge crowd for the NCAA championship.
Next year, however, the NCAA has announced the championship tournament will be hosted by Bucknell University and will be played in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. If a near-cemented championship venue can be altered, why can't the format be altered as well?
This does little, however, to console a Trojan polo team that went 22-5 this year, and totaled half as many losses as third place-finishing Loyola. The Trojans still have much to be proud of this season as six Trojans were named all-MPSF players. Two of them, senior James Shin, and junior Juraj Zatovic were named to the first team. Sophomore Thomas Hale earned second team honors. Coach Vavic was amazed with the way the team played through injuries. He estimates senior James Shin played the entire season at about 80 percent. "You have to be realistic about how our season went," he acknowledged, "We had to deal with issues we can't even control."
The Trojans also pulled off a huge early-season upset over Stanford, and could have beaten the Cardinal had they been given a shot in this year's postseason tournament. In fact, both Cal and USC beat Stanford during the regular season, and with an outstanding performance, either team could have taken out eventual champion UCLA.
College football's postseason system may be far from the changes that fans and experts are calling for, but that should not be the case with water polo. The BCS and the bowl system will be a part of college football through the end of the decade, but by 2010, a new posteason system for men's water polo must be in place. Water polo has no television contracts, and or university presidents lobbying against change. Now that water polo is becoming a major sport, it must make significant changes to the postseason including adding teams, and changing the championship venue yearly. And hey, if any debate arises as to which teams deserve the at-large bids, take a page out of college football's rule book, and just let the computers decide.
Danny Page is a junior who also serves as the color commentator for USC football on KSCR 1560 AM.