The scene: The USC men’s water polo team was swimming in its own home pool at this year’s NCAA tournament championship match against its crosstown rival, the UCLA Bruins. A year ago, the team was riding the wave of an unprecedented four-year winning streak in the same tournament. Determined not to break its momentum, the team saw the competition as its defining moment.
Down three goals early, USC took the lead during the second period, but it didn’t last long. Things were looking dicey right up to the moment when, with 2:25 remaining, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences senior Michael Rosenthal scored his third goal and evened the score at 10-10.
In the tough, hard-fought two minutes that followed, the Trojans did their best to play stellar defense, and it paid off. With a mere 40 seconds remaining, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism sophomore Kostas Genidounias scored the winning goal.
“That game!” exclaimed Rosenthal, a broad-shouldered, good-humored athlete from Miami. “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.”
Such single-minded focus helped Rosenthal and mates throughout their admirable 2012 season. The white-knuckle victory on Dec. 2 signaled two important achievements: It not only clinched an undefeated 29-0 season, it garnered the USC men’s water polo team its fifth consecutive national title — a first-time feat in the history of NCAA water polo.
Last year’s history-making win was exciting enough, so this year was more icing on a very sweet cake.
Rosenthal had the additional honor of being named the most valuable player of the tournament.
“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.”
Humble to a fault, Rosenthal never misses an opportunity to credit his fellow players.
“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.”
Rosenthal’s love of the sport was seemingly predestined, and it was certainly a family affair. His father, Dan, who earned his bachelor’s degree from the USC Marshall School of Business in 1981, and his mother, Meredith, who earned her Bachelor of Science the following year at USC Dornsife, were NCAA All-American swimmers at the university. 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 the age of 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.
During his recruitment visit to USC as a high school senior, Rosenthal wasn’t 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.
Tellingly, his first meeting was with 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!’ ” Rosenthal said.
The decision was made, and he never looked back.
He “redshirted” his first season, which meant he was part of the team but was not eligible to compete, giving him a year to train and develop his skills. The experience was invaluable.
“You walk into the USC program from a high school team in Florida, and you see these superstar players and guys that are involved in the national team and you see how hard they’re working,” Rosenthal said. “Stepping into this culture and seeing that this is what the USC program stands for is really eye-opening.”
Once Rosenthal officially began to compete as a sophomore, he enjoyed success and won accolades, 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,” he said. “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,” he explained. “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.”
Rosenthal is currently contemplating future plans with his coach, family and trusted friends. Two possible paths would be to play for the U.S. national team or to join a different team overseas. He has already played water polo in Argentina, Croatia, Hungary, Italy and Montenegro.
“It’s really been an amazing journey,” he reflected. “And hopefully it’s just begun!”