The never-ending sports cycle that is USC athletics is back for another fall semester — a period of time that never seems to lack excitement.Football, of course, takes the cake. You may remember a year ago — not more than a week into the semester — when a horde of news trucks and cameras swarmed the practice field after head coach Steve Sarkisian went rogue at the annual Salute of Troy event.The scandal followed the team for much of the season, as Sarkisian took a leave of absence and was promptly fired after his problems with alcohol came to light. They lost to Stanford and Washington at home and to Notre Dame on the road (where then-Athletic Director Pat Haden collapsed on the sideline). And yet, a team mired in controversy and negative attention — seemingly bound for a lost season — won five of its final six games and ended up four quarters away from an improbable trip to the Rose Bowl.But the Trojans were literally run out of Levi’s Stadium by Christian McCaffrey and Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game and their season ended with a loss to Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl, a game that was just as bitter as the cold winter night at Qualcomm Stadium.Assuming they make it past Salute to Troy on Aug. 19 without incident, the Trojans will already be in better shape than they were last year entering the season. But — unexpected controversy aside — criticism could still be quick to rain down on the No. 17 ranked team in the nation in the preseason coaches’ poll.There will be a new quarterback — either the redshirt junior Max Browne or unexpected challenger redshirt freshman Sam Darnold — and whomever is chosen will be thrown into the fire quickly. The man who picks him will be Clay Helton, entering his first full season at the helm, feted with a long-term contract and a plate full of expectations to restore USC football to national prominence.For a rookie head coach with an unproven quarterback, an easy schedule to begin the season would be beneficial — maybe games against Arkansas State or Fresno State. Um, how about facing Alabama, Stanford and Utah in three of their first four games, all away from the Coliseum?The task ahead is daunting, but it wouldn’t be Trojan football without it. The program is no stranger to adversity in recent years, from the crippling sanctions to the Lane Kiffin era to the Sarkisian fiasco.This year, it’s a story that could end in any number of ways, and it will be under a new Athletic Director in Lynn Swann. Much like Helton will seek to calm the waters on the sidelines, Swann will look to provide stability at the top after Haden’s up-and-down tenure.Fair or unfair, athletic directors at USC are ultimately judged by the accomplishments of the football team, but Swann could extend a positive first impression if other fall sports succeed as well.He has some good cards to play right away. Men’s water polo is a perennial lock to make the NCAA title match, and the legendary Jovan Vavic and new co-head coach Marko Pintaric will be hungry to avenge last season’s championship defeat to UCLA. Women’s volleyball is also a national powerhouse, going 33-3 last season and appearing in the NCAA Regional Championship match for the fifth time in six years. Women’s soccer is a program on the rise. Fresh off a deep postseason run, the Women of Troy will return most of their starters and are projected to finish second in the Pac-12 in the preseason coaches’ poll.But, like it or not, those three programs could each have unbeaten seasons and it wouldn’t mitigate the backlash that would come with a mediocre football campaign. The buck stops (and starts) with Helton and who he picks to be his quarterback. And when kickoff happens against defending national champion Alabama — as someone once wrote in a book — let the games begin, and may the odds be ever in their favor. Eric He is a sophomore majoring in print and digital journalism. He is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Grinding Gears,” will run Fridays.
Despite winning each of their first 10 matches, USC women’s water polo lost for the first time this season. Falling 9-3 to No. 1 Stanford in the championship match of the Barbara Kalbus Invitational, the Women of Troy found a disappointing end to what was an otherwise strong showing for the squad.Sophomore driver Kelsey McIntosh has scored 14 goals in the 2018 season, the third most on the Trojans’ squad. Daily Trojan file photo.“By the end, recovery played a huge role,” head coach Jovan Vavic said. “We were definitely worn out.”To start out the tournament, action was business as usual for USC. After dismantling No. 18 San Jose State by a 17-1 margin on Friday, the Trojans were off and running. Against the Spartans, nine different players found the back of the net, six managed to score twice, and two (drivers freshman Paige Hauschild and sophomore Denise Mammolito) notched hat tricks. As a team, USC opened up the match with a massive 16-0 run only conceding a late goal in the final seven minutes of play.On Saturday, USC faced a tough pair of opponents standing between them and a shot at winning a third consecutive Barbara Kalbus title. In the first match of the day, the Trojans took down No. 6 Arizona State 8-6 in a hard fought, back-and-forth affair. Taking a 5-5 tie into the fourth period, USC stepped up when it mattered most, striking three more times to secure the victory before the Sun Devils could find any footing. Senior utility player Annika Jensen became the third Trojan to pick up a hat trick over the course of two games while Hauschild netted her fourth and fifth goals of the tournament.Moving on to the semi-finals, No. 2 Cal. represented the toughest test the Women of Troy had faced thus far in the 2018 season. Early in the match, the Golden Bears were proving just why they are such a difficult squad to overcome. California came out firing, pinning down USC 3-1 within the first few minutes of the game. The Trojan defense tightened up in the second period and by halftime, the score was knotted up 3-3.Continuing momentum off a strong end to the half, junior goaltender Amanda Longan dominated the final half of play. In a career-best performance of 18 saves, Longan repelled shot after shot from the dangerous Cal team. Her performance completely shut down Cal for yet another period in the third, allowing USC to take a 5-3 lead into the fourth off goals from senior drivers Brianna Daboub and Jensen. Despite conceding their 2-goal lead, USC found a late spark as Jensen completed her second consecutive hat trick with a clutch score that came with just 18 seconds left in regulation time. “[Jensen] stepped up and that’s what you do as a senior,” Vavic said. “I’m excited to see what she can do.”All that remained for USC to secure a third-straight title was a championship match against No. 1 Stanford. As it turned out, the Trojans’ long stretch of success would finally come to an end. After turning in a number of dominant offensive performances throughout the early season and the first few matches of the tournament, the goal scoring faltered Sunday against Stanford as the Women of Troy fell 9-3 to the Cardinal.Despite failures to convert on key chances early in the match, USC was down only 3-2 in the second period. At this point, the floodgates opened and Stanford managed to score four consecutive goals until a last-minute score from Trojan freshman driver Verica Bakoc closed the Trojans’ deficit to 7-3 heading into the half. While this margin is certainly within striking range, USC was unable to close the gap as the Cardinal completely shut down the Trojans’ attack for the remainder of the game to take home the title.Looking ahead, the squad will have a few weeks off before taking on No. 7 UC Irvine on March 7.