No. 1 USC Takes Top Seed And Perfect Record Into 2016 MPSF Tourney

    Jovan Vavic has his Women of Troy holding a perfect record entering the postseason for the third time in program history.
    April 27, 2016

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    The top-ranked USC women’s water polo team totes an undefeated record along with the top seed for the 2016 MPSF Championships, held this year in Bakersfield, Calif. As the No. 1 seed in the tourney, the Trojans have scored a first-round bye to step straight into a semifinal spot. USC (21-0) will await either No. 4 seed Arizona State or No. 5 seed California in a 2:30 p.m. semifinal game on Saturday (April 30) at CSU Bakersfield's John S. Hillman Memorial Aquatic Center. A semifinal victory would put USC in the MPSF title match for the eighth time. The 2016 MPSF championship will go on the line at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday (May 1), preceded by the third-place game at 12:45 p.m. USC has won three previous MPSF Tournament championships, last in 2013 when USC went on to claim the 2013 NCAA crown.
    USC opened 2016 ranked No. 3 in the national preseason poll and at No. 2 in the MPSF preseason poll. The Trojans moved up to rank No. 2 on Feb. 10, and rose in the ranks to stand as the No. 1 team in the nation as of the Feb. 17 national poll. The last time USC was ranked No. 1 had been in March 2014. USC remains as the nation’s No. 1 team this week.
    Less than a week after posting up a solid 8-3 win over No. 3 Stanford in the Cardinal's home pool to mark the Trojans' biggest win over Stanford since 2009, USC returned to Uytengsu Aquatics Center for its final home game looking to put the finishing touches on a perfect regular-season finish. With an 11-6 win over visiting No. 6 Cal, the Trojans notched their third undefeated regular season, holding a perfect 21-0 overall record. USC also went undefeated in regular-season action in 2004 and 2006. In the battle against the Golden Bears, Cal would cut the USC lead down to one on three occasions, only to see the Trojans fire back and then rattle off a four-goal scoring surge to put Cal out of reach deep into the third quarter. USC's lead would grow to as much as six goals, although a 5-meter penalty shot for Cal would finish off the day's action as an 11-6 USC victory. From the opening whistle, the Trojans got right down to business in opening up a 2-0 lead. Nikki Stansfield served up the first goal of the day with a rocket off a USC power play. Less than a minute later, Brianna Daboub set up Stephania Haralabidis for the strike that built that 2-0 advantage for the Trojans. Cal would answer back with a 6-on-5 finish that tugged it to a one-goal margin, only to see USC's Avery Peterson take control at two-meters to provide some padding, up 3-1. The USC defense would shut down the Bears the rest of the frame, with Melissa Bergesen and Haralabidis nabbing steals to keep Cal silent. Cal would close the gap two one twice in the second quarter, but USC generated a response within 30 seconds both times. Annika Jensen took an assist from Peterson to knock in a 4-2 lead midway through the second, and then Brigitta Games finished off a feed from Bergesen for a nifty 6-on-5 finish that would spark a four-goal surge by the Trojans. After earning back-to-back 6-on-5 chances for the Trojans, Peterson later earned a 5-meter penalty shot for her dominating work at set. Haralabidis sizzled in the score with 2 seconds left in the half, and USC held a 6-3 advantage at halftime. USC would tighten its grip on command of the game in the third quarter as Haralabidis unleashed a screamer to make it 7-3. Goalie Victória Chamorro put a stop to Cal's next power play chance, and then Hayley McKelvey ripped in an 8-3 lead for the Trojans soon after. The Bears broke up the scoring rally with a score from two-meters next, and USC's lead would stand at 8-4 entering the final eight minutes of action. USC's stubborn defense kicked back into gear in the fourth. Daboub tracked down a loose ball to stymie one Cal offensive opportunity, and then Chamorro came up huge with a save against a Cal 5-meter penalty shot just two minutes into the frame. USC's offense clicked back in next, and Haralabidis delivered a monster bar-in blast from distance to notch her fourth goal of the day, building a 9-4 advantage. She'd then put up a field block on the defensive end and follow that with a feed to Games for a ripper that made it 10-4 Trojans with 3:55 to go. Hueso would step into the cage for Chamorro to close things out, while freshman Dagmar Gudmundsson got on the scoresheet with a blast set up by fellow freshman Courtney Fahey. In the final seconds, Hueso would get tagged with an exclusion to set up a Cal 5-meter chance. Freshman field player Brooke Presten got called into duty in the cage to face the penalty shot. She'd get close, but the Bears would finish off the game with the final score to make USC's regular-season finale an 11-6 victory. 
    All seven MPSF teams will take part in the 2016 MPSF Tournament, hosted this year by CSU Bakersfield at the John S. Hillman Memorial Aquatic Center in Bakersfield, Calif. The top seed this year, the No. 1 Trojans (21-0), have a bye for the first round and will await either No. 4 Arizona State or No. 5 California in Saturday’s semifinals. The seedings shake out with UCLA (22-3) as the No. 2 seed, followed by No. 3 Stanford (19-4), No. 4 Arizona State (17-6), No. 5 California (20-8), No. 6 San Jose State (17-13) and No. 7 CSU Bakersfield (13-19).
    USC was the No. 3 seed in last year’s MPSF Tournament, carrying a 21-3 overall record into the tournament hosted by ASU in Tempe, Ariz. The Trojans opened up with a 19-8 win over San Jose State in the first round before falling to No. 2 seed UCLA 9-7 in the semifinals. In the third-place game, USC went up against top-seeded Stanford, which had fallen to No. 4 seed Cal in the other semi. Against the Cardinal, the Trojans came up short, taking a 9-6 loss to leave Stanford in third and the Trojans with a fourth-place finish. Monica Vavic would represent the Trojans on the 2015 MPSF All-Tournament Team. USC would still earn an at-large berth in the 2015 NCAA Tournament to make its 12th consecutive NCAA appearance. 
    Two-meter player Avery Peterson is off to the races in her junior campaign, having already bettered her previous career total with a powerful 29 goals already scored this season alone. She set a new career high for herself with a six-goal game at Whittier on Feb. 6, and has since picked up her first career selection as MPSF Player of the Week. After punching up a hat trick in a key MPSF road win over Arizona State, Peterson earned the weekly award for the first time on March 8.
    USC tacked up another tournament title to remain undefeated in 2016 with a push to the UCI Invitational championship Feb. 27-28. The Trojans opened up with a 13-3 win over CSUN on day one and would wind up in a tough battle against tournament host UC Irvine later that afternoon, pulling off an 11-10 victory to move into Sunday’s semifinals. There, USC stoned No. 4 Stanford with a ferocious 7-6 comeback win to secure a place in the title match. In another title match faceoff with rival UCLA, USC held its ground against the No. 2 Bruins and pinned up a 10-7 victory to win the championship crown. Stephania Haralabidis would come through with the clutch game-winning goals against both UC Irvine and Stanford. She’d finish the tournament with 12 goals, including a career-high seven goals in the tight win over UC Irvine. Amanda Longan and Victória Chamorro would share time in the cage, each capping up for two games apiece. Longan got the call-up for the UC Irvine game and the UCLA faceoff in the final, and would come through with 10 saves in both appearances. For their roles in helping to drive the Trojans to the championship, Stephania Haralabidis and Amanda Longan secured another MPSF sweep of weekly awards, as Haralabidis was named MPSF Player of the Week for the second time and Longan grabbed MPSF Newcomer of the Week honors for the third consecutive week.
    USC's 21-0 record in the 2016 regular season marks the Trojans' third undefeated regular-season finish in program history, also achieved in 2004 and 2006. That 2004 campaign, USC became the first women's team ever to post a full undefeated season, going 29-0 in 2004. In 2006, USC went 24-0 in the regular season before taking its first loss in the MPSF semis. 
    Through these 21 games of the 2016 regular season, undefeated USC has outscored opponents 264-91, leading the MPSF in defense (4.33 gapg) and offense (12.57 gpg). Junior Stephania Haralabidis is the top scorer to date with 54 goals — ranking her No. 8 all-time in career scoring with 176 goals. Just behind her are three fellow juniors. Brigitta Games is next in line with 33 goals to date, followed by Ioanna Haralabidis, who is now well past the century mark and has cracked the top-20 in career goals thanks to her 33 goals scored in 2016. Just behind her is fellow junior Avery Peterson, who has more than doubled her sophomore season total with her 29 goals to date. On the defensive end, freshman goalie Amanda Longan has capped in 13 games and is averaging 9.9 saves and 4.7 goals-against per game in her 40 periods of work. Returning All-American goalie Victória Chamorro has appeared in 36 periods and averages 6.8 saves and 4.6 goals-against per game. Senior goalie Alegra Hueso has allowed only three goals in her eight appearances in the cage to date. The Trojan defense has held 14 opponents silent in at least one period of play while accumulating a grand total of 25 shutout periods this season so far, including a complete-game shutout of Redlands on April 9.
    For their efforts in driving the Trojans to perfect performances at the Triton Invitational and UCI Invitational, USC’s Stephania Haralabidis and Amanda Longan have paired up to sweep the MPSF weekly honors twice so far this season. At the Triton Invitational Haralabidis scored nine goals, topping out with a hat trick in the title match, where the Trojans beat No. 1 UCLA 8-6 in the final. In the semifinals, Haralabidis scored twice to help generate a 6-3 win for USC over Arizona State. At the same event, freshman goalie Longan had a strong showing. In her two appearances, Longan collected a total of eight saves — including a 5-meter penalty stop — and allowed only four goals. She made three saves in three periods of work in the opening 20-2 win over Santa Clara and then made five saves in the same stretch of action in USC’s 6-3 semifinal win over ASU. More recently, the duo proved instrumental again in guiding the Trojans to the 2016 UCI Invitational championship. Haralabidis’ 12 goals at the event included a career-high seven goals in a close 11-10 win over host UC Irvine, the game-winner with 5 second left in the 7-6 semifinal win over Stanford, and a hat trick in the 10-7 championship victory over UCLA. Longan, too, came up big in the cage with 10 saves vs. UCI and 10 more against the Bruins. That marked Longan’s third straight week as MPSF Newcomer of the Week, while Haralabidis secured her second MPSF Player of the Week award of 2016 with the pair’s second sweep of the season.
    The overall young Trojans have garnered plenty of international experience on the way into this 2016 campaign for USC. Incoming freshman goalie Amanda Longan won gold with Team USA at the 2015 FINA Junior World Championships, where several other Trojans were competing with their respective countries. The Haralabidis sisters, Ioanna and Stephania were in action with Greece; goalie Victória Chamorro capped up for Brazil; and Hayley McKelvey was a high scorer for Canada.
    USC’s goalkeeping corps this season is ferociously deep. Sophomore Victória Chamorro set a freshman goalie record last season in hauling in 207 saves in her first year as a Trojan. This year, she’s joined by freshman Amanda Longan, who was named Top Goalkeeper at the 2015 FINA Junior World Championships during the summer. Added veteran experience comes from senior captain Alegra Hueso, who appeared in 27 games during her first three seasons as a Trojan. 
    The most experienced player in the pool this season is junior Avery Peterson — one of three Trojan captains for 2016. Sophomore Brianna Daboub and senior Alegra Hueso also have been selected as team captains for the year. Peterson weighs in as the veteran of the group in that she has logged the most playing time of the bunch. With 20 goals to her name as a Trojan, the 2-meter power was in the water for USC’s last two NCAA Tournament runs. Daboub may just be a sophomore, but her savvy helps her stand out as another key leader for the Trojans this season. She scored 27 goals as a freshman and was named to the 2015 MPSF All-Newcomer Team. A senior, Hueso has been at Troy since her freshman season in 2013, when USC won its last NCAA Championship.
    USC was significantly tested in back-to-back games at the UCI Invitational, facing deficits against both UC Irvine and Stanford and finding a way to fight back to victory. The Anteaters are the only team this year to score in double digits against the Trojans, but USC remained unfazed in a see-saw battle against the tournament host that saw the lead change hands back and forth and lock up even seven times. UC Irvine led 4-3 after the first period of play and later got out to an 8-6 advantage with 3:38 left in the third period, only to see the Trojans rattle off three straight scores to work back into the lead. Hayley McKelvey provided the spark and Stephania Haralabidis followed with back-to-back blasts to take the Trojans ahead 9-8 with 1:22 to go in the third. A Haralabidis buzzer-beater would get USC ahead 10-9 entering the fourth. There, the Anteaters snarled it up for the seventh time with a score at 5:25. Less than a minute later, Haralabidis proved heroic again with her seventh goal of the game to get USC ahead 11-10 at 4:43, and that one would hold through a tense final few minutes get USC the victory. The very next morning, USC was in a crucial semifinal bout with Stanford, which pumped in three goals in the second frame to lead it 4-2 at halftime. The Cardinal would net one more in the third to put USC behind 5-2 entering the final period. That’s where the Trojans showed their mettle. McKelvey  broke the silence with a blast to start the fourth frame, and Brianna Daboub rifled one in to get USC within one, down 5-4 with 5:57 on the clock. The Trojans would shut down a Stanford 6-on-5 chance next, and then Brigitta Games shouldered the load and dished out the equalizer to get USC even again at 5-5 with 3:05 to go. The USC scoring run continued as Ioanna Haralabidis notched USC’s first lead since the first frame, hammering home the go-ahead goal at 1:14. In the final minute, Stanford broke through and managed to level it up at 6-6 with 54 ticks to go. USC would wind up on the attack as the clock wound down, setting up Stephania Haralabidis to come through as the hero of the game as she landed a lob in the back of the net with just 5 seconds left to get USC a 7-6 lead.
    USC kept its 2016 slate clean in surging to the Triton Invitational championship in early February. The Trojans grabbed two decisive wins on the first day to reach the semifinals, where they pinned up a 6-3 win over No. 5 Arizona State. That evening, the Trojans clashed with crosstown rival UCLA in the championship game, and USC took control of the tile match en route to an 8-6 win that snapped a five-game losing stretch against the Bruins. Stephania Haralabidis was USC’s top scorer at the event, tallying nine goals across the four games, including a hat trick in the championship win over UCLA. The Trojans opened up with a 20-2 win over Santa Clara on Saturday morning before facing host UC San Diego in the afternoon. The Trojans went on to post a 15-8 win over the Tritons to secure that semifinal spot against the Sun Devils on Sunday. In those two games, USC had two Trojans tally their first career goals as freshmen Dagmar Gudmundsson and Brooke Presten both got on the scoresheets. The next day, USC displayed some stubborn defensive work in holding ASU to only three goals in the semifinal game. Offensively, USC crafted an early 2-0 lead on goals from Haralabidis and Brigitta Games. That one-two punch by the Trojans woke up the Sun Devils, but ASU’s first goal of the day was answered swiftly by a Hayley McKelvey blast to net USC a 3-1 lead after one period of play. In the second period, USC forged on, rattling in three unanswered goals as the Haralabidis sisters took care of business on the offensive end. Stephania rattled in one more and Ioanna hammered home a pair to get USC a 6-1 halftime advantage. USC would come up empty in the second half, but the Trojan defense held its ground against the Sun Devils. ASU put a lone goal through in the third and fourth periods to round out a 6-3 USC victory with goalies Amanda Longan and Alegra Hueso sharing time in the cage.  In the championship game, USC went up against rival UCLA for the first time since taking a loss to the Bruins in the 2015 MPSF semifinal. The Trojans were ready for this rematch, leaping out to a 3-0 lead on the Bruins. Once again, Stephania Haralabidis and Games lit the fuse for USC, and Brianna Daboub got in on the action early in the second before the Bruins were able to break their silence. UCLA closed the gap to 3-2, but Daboub delivered again, and Haralabidis would answer UCLA’s next score with a blast of her own to take the Trojans to a 5-3 halftime lead. Again, UCLA managed to close the gap down to one, punching one in to start the third. Again, the Trojans had a potent response. Ioanna Haralabidis, Daboub and Stephania Haralabidis zipped in three straight scores for the Trojans, putting USC largely in the driver’s seat with an 8-4 advantage. UCLA was able to net only two goals in the remaining time, while goalie Victória Chamorro closed out a complete game with seven saves to lock in on USC’s 8-6 championship victory over the Bruins. 
    The Women of Troy are the direction of head coach Jovan Vavic for the 22nd season. USC looks to extend a streak of 12 straight trips to the NCAA Tournament, and the talent is certainly there to make a strong run at a title. Picked No. 2 in the MPSF Preseason Coaches Poll, the Trojans weighed in just a point behind top-picked Stanford. Both the Trojans and the Cardinal each received three first-place votes, hinting at a heated race for the 2016 title to come. USC returns three of its top five scorers from 2015 — Stephania Haralabidis (64 goals), Ioanna Haralabidis (50 goals) and Melissa Bergesen (37 goals) — along with All-American goalie Victória Chamorro and All-American two-meter power Brigitta Games. The Haralabidis twins earned All-American status last season as well. In all, USC returns 11 members of last season’s 16-player NCAA roster. •