If a USC vs. UCLA matchup is considered big in any sport no matter the circumstances, then the No. 1 men’s water polo team’s upcoming game against their No. 4 cross-town rivals is colossal.
The Trojans enter the weekend at 19-1 and 5-0 in conference play, and remain firmly at the top of the national rankings for the fourth consecutive week. Their only loss this season came at the hands of the Bruins, who edged USC 5-4 in the semifinal game of the NorCal Tournament to snap the Trojans’ 36-game winning streak and knock them out of the No. 1 ranking.
Since then, USC has won 14 straight matches and is looking to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.
“Mentally, we’re getting focused,” senior two-meter Shea Buckner said. “We’ve been ready for this last half of the season all year. We’ve worked our asses off this entire year up to this point, and we’re going to continue to work our asses off. We’re definitely optimistic and looking forward to [the rest of the season].”
Buckner, who leads the team with 30 goals, is part of a USC offense that is the epitome of balanced — the Trojans have had five or more players score in 19 of the 20 games this season, and 13 different Trojans have five or more goals total.
“I think on any given day any one of our players on our team can have four goals,” Buckner said. “[Senior driver] Justin Rappel gets shut down one day, you’ve got [sophomore driver] Peter Kurzeka who’s going to throw out four goals. If Peter gets shut down, [senior two-meter J.W. Krumpholz] is going to score four goals. If J.W. gets shut down, I might go out there and score four goals.”
While the versatility of the offense continues to be effective, the Trojans’ defense may be even more notable.
The team, motivated by a personal goal to limit their opponents to four scores or less a game, has done just that in half of the matches they’ve played this season, and have given up just 96 goals in 20 games.
Sophomore goalkeeper Joel Dennerley continues to anchor the defense, tallying 125 saves so far this year.
“Four goals a game is a goal of ours as a team, and so we definitely work hard to try and keep a team to that many,” Dennerley said. “UCLA has got a lot of firepower, so we’re going to have to deal with plenty of scouting to see what their strengths are and find ways to stop their attacks.”
Unlike the previous meeting between the two teams, Saturday’s game counts as a conference match — the first and only between USC and UCLA this season. With the season ending in less than three weeks and playoff seedings still undetermined, this weekend presents a prime opportunity for both teams to make their case for the top rank.
“We have a tremendous amount of firepower, we’re always well prepared by [coach Jovan Vavic], we know our plan and we know how to attack the defense of UCLA,” Buckner said. “We’ve just got to put it together.”