Here’s the scene: The USC men’s water polo team is swimming in their home pool for the 2012 NCAA tournament against crosstown rival the UCLA Bruins. A year ago, the Trojans had achieved a history-making four-year consecutive winning streak in this very tournament. Determined not to break their momentum, this is the defining moment.
Down three goals early in the game, USC has crawled back to a small lead during the second period. It doesn’t last long. Things are looking dicey right up to the moment when, with 2:25 remaining in the game, USC Dornsife senior Michael Rosenthal scores his third goal and brings the game to its fourth draw of the day.
The score is 10-10.
In the agonizing two minutes that follow, relying on near-inconceivable levels of mental acuity, the Trojans defend their tenuous position. And with a mere 40 seconds remaining, USC Annenberg sophomore Kostas Genidounias scores the victory goal.
“That game!” exclaimed Rosenthal, a broad-shouldered, good-humored athlete from Miami, Florida. “That game was the ultimate test of what we stand for and what we work for. Being down early and then again late in the game really tests your nerves because it’s so easy to succumb to the pressure.
“But, that’s the pressure we put on ourselves every day in practice to be in the right spot, do our job and know what our teammates are going to do. So once you’re there in the moment, seeing something you’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of times in practice, doing it is almost instinctual: an ordinary accomplishment on an extraordinary day.”
This single-minded focus has aided Rosenthal and his fellow Trojans throughout their admirable 2012 season. The heart-stopping NCAA Dec. 2 victory signaled two important achievements: it not only cinched an undefeated 29-0 season, it garnered the USC men’s water polo team its 5th consecutive national title — a feat unprecedented in NCAA water polo history.
Last year’s history-making was exciting enough, so this year? More icing on a very sweet cake.
Rosenthal had the additional honor of being named the NCAA tournament’s most valuable player following this white-knuckle victory.
“It’s really truly unbelievable,” he said. “I wanted to come play college water polo in California and explore my potential. Playing for [water polo coach] Jovan [Vavic] and with the guys that have been here — I’ve learned so much about the sport, myself and about life. So to get that award at the end of my college career, it really is the cherry on top.”
He never misses an opportunity to credit his fellow players; the team’s camaraderie is both evident and enviable.
“One special thing about this team is how tightly knit we are,” he said. “It’s not a chore to go to practice. Especially toward the end of the season, when everyone sees the light at the end of the tunnel and the goals we’re all striving for, it’s really fun to go to practice. Everyone’s laughing, having a good time and working hard. We know that we’re all in it together and we trust that everyone’s going to do their part to win.”
So far, it’s been a pretty foolproof system for USC.
Rosenthal’s love of the pool seems almost pre-destined, and it’s certainly a family affair. His father Dan, who earned his bachelor’s degree from USC Marshall in 1981, and his mother Meredith, who earned her B.S. the following year in general studies in USC Dornsife, were both NCAA All-American swimmers at USC. His younger sister Madeline is a junior on the USC women’s water polo team, majoring in communications at USC Annenberg.
Rosenthal started playing water polo in middle school, traveling to Hungary at age 14 to compete on the U.S. National Cadet Team. He continued with the sport into high school while simultaneously participating on the swim team, gaining notoriety in both arenas.
During his recruitment visit to USC as a high school senior, Rosenthal wasn’t exactly sure how he would balance his traditional swimming career with his abiding love for water polo. He’d had a great swim season that year, and his coach was pushing him to pursue the swim team at USC. But Rosenthal was privately leaning toward water polo. He promised his coach that he’d at least talk to the USC swim coach.
Tellingly, his first meeting was with water polo coach Vavic. “When I mentioned that I was planning to see the swim coach too, Jovan boomed, ‘You know you can’t do both, you have to choose one or the other! Do you want to be an Olympian in swimming or in water polo?’
“Terrified, I replied, ‘water polo, Jovan!’ ” laughed Rosenthal. The decision was made and he never looked back.
He “redshirted” his first season, which meant he was part of the team but not eligible to compete, giving him a building year to train and develop. The experience was invaluable for him.
“You walk into the USC program from a high school team in Florida and you see these super star players and guys that are involved in the national team and you see how hard they’re working . . . stepping into this culture and seeing that this is what the USC program stands for is really eye-opening.”
Once he began officially competing with USC as a sophomore, he had a series of illustrious seasons, including an All-America Honorable Mention in 2011.
“It’s just been more than perfect since day one at USC. I wouldn’t change one single second. I’m so grateful for everything that’s happened, how everything’s worked out, the ups and the downs — all of it.”
At USC Dornsife, Rosenthal is majoring in human biology with a business minor.
“I really like the classes I’ve taken at USC. I’ve been able to apply the lessons about leadership and teamwork that we study in class, in the pool. To the same effect, I’ve used all the lessons I’ve learned in water polo to make me a better student in my classes. Working with my professors and classmates has taught me so many skills that will help me represent the Trojan Family with pride in the future.”
Speaking of the future, Rosenthal is currently ruminating over his plans and discussing options with his coach, family and trusted friends. Two compelling paths would be to either play for the U.S. national team or play on a team abroad, continuing to benefit from water polo as a vehicle for seeing the world. Already the sport has sent him as far afield as Hungary, Argentina, Montenegro, Italy and Croatia.
“It’s really been an amazing journey,” he reflected. “And hopefully it’s just begun!”