Although it was proven last weekend that the USC men’s water polo team is, in fact, mortal, the Trojans still have every opportunity to retain the one title that truly matters: national champion.
The next step in moving closer to a second championship in just as many years begins this weekend, when the Trojans make their debut at home with a doubleheader against Pepperdine and Long Beach City College.
“I can’t wait for it. Friends, family … I’ve been telling [everyone] to come to our game, come support us,” sophomore two-meter Matt Burton said. “I really think you’ll see a huge bout out here. Pepperdine is always a fun team to play.”
The Trojans will have their hands full against a strong Pepperdine team that finished the 2008 regular season ranked No. 2. USC won all three matches between the two teams in 2008, but two of them were decided by a single goal, including a 3-2 win over the Waves in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation championship game that secured the title for the Trojans.
Pepperdine lost two of its top performers from last season but has managed to stay ranked in the top 10 every week this season, despite poor showings in both the Triton Invitational and NorCal Tournament. Coach Jack Kocur returns for another season with the Waves, a year after the MPSF voted him Co-Coach of the Year alongside USC’s coach Jovan Vavic.
This weekend’s matchup with the Trojans will be the Waves’ first MPSF game of the year.
USC enters the weekend with an overall 8-1 record, with its only blemish stemming from a close loss to UCLA in the semifinal round of the NorCal Tournament. Before the defeat, the Trojans were riding a 36-game win streak that dated all the way back to the first match of the 2008 season.
“We had a very long meeting when we came back to practice on Tuesday, where we outlined all the problems that were inherent in both the team chemistry and dynamic, as well as the game plan and execution,” Burton said of the Trojans’ preparation after the loss. “I think now we’ve gotten past [the loss] and identified a lot of things that were wrong with our team, and we’re definitely looking to move on.”
Immediately after the Pepperdine match, the Trojans face off in a scrimmage against Long Beach City College. The game was recently scheduled as an opportunity for additional practice for both teams, who don’t normally play each other during the course of the season. Regardless, the Trojans remain focused on their first test of the day.
“We’re definitely focused on Pepperdine,” Burton said.
The Trojans’ seniors continue to anchor the team on both sides of the ball, accounting for four of USC’s top five scorers and a large part of the defense that has allowed only 39 goals so far this season. Six of the seven seniors (excluding goalkeepers) scored at least once in the tournament, and all seven have three or more goals this year alone.
In addition, sophomore goalkeeper Joel Dennerley has been steady, offering reassurance that the position will be well-manned for the next couple of seasons. Dennerley had 22 saves during the NorCal Tournament, raising his season total to 52 in nine games.
Despite the end of its winning streak, this weekend marks an opportunity for a new one to begin.
“I think we just have to get back to the basics,” Dennerley said. “We got away from some things we were doing last year as a team that made us so successful. We’ve had a really good week of practice so far. Things have definitely improved and we’re more than ready for Pepperdine this weekend.”