USC ready for clash of conference powers

It took only one thing for USC men’s water polo coach Jovan Vavic to start questioning his team’s identity — a 5-3 road loss to Stanford.

“We’re going to find out what kind of team we are,” Vavic said, referring to USC’s upcoming clash with California. “We’ll see how we rebound.”

After 13 games away from the friendly confines of McDonald’s Swim Stadium, USC is coming home. The No. 1 Trojans (15-1, 1-1) will return from an exhausting road trip to dive into familiar waters for a Mountain Pacific Sports Federation matchup with No. 2 Cal Saturday at 10 a.m.

But for the first time in 2010, the Trojans are faced with the challenge of rebounding from an agonizing defeat against a team that they had defeated on 17 consecutive occasions.

“We just missed our shots,” Vavic said. “Maybe we were both tired and unfocused. Certainly, we did not look like ourselves in that game when we were shooting the ball.”

But as the nation’s second-ranked team descends upon Los Angeles, USC will have to do more than just put the ball in the opposing net. Instead, the Trojans will be forced to contend with one of the country’s best offensive units.

“They do a number of things very well,” Vavic said. “In particular, they have two great Serbian scorers who are very dangerous. They’re a great offensive team.”

The two players referenced are junior attackers Ivan Rackov and Luka Saponjic, who lead the team with 36 and 21 goals respectively, and are also members of the Serbian national team.

But despite Cal’s offensive prowess, the Trojans’ defensive unit remains just as nationally prominent — largely because of its anchor, junior goalie Joel Dennerley, who is having arguably the best season of his collegiate career after already being named MPSF Player of the Week twice this season.

“He’s a focused athlete,” Vavic said. “He wants to play in the Olympics, so he really understands that he has to get better and improve.”

In recent weeks, Dennerley has been as sharp as ever. Against UCLA in the SoCal Tournament championship game, he tallied 15 saves. Even in defeat against Stanford, he finished with four saves and surrendered just five goals — below the team’s per game average of 5.9 goals.

Even with Dennerley’s consistency, however, Saturday’s contest will likely hinge on the team’s offensive capabilities, which were tough to notice against Stanford.

“I don’t think our guys were really following through in regards to where we told them to shoot the ball,” Vavic said. “We talked about how to beat the goalie and where to shoot the ball, but we did not do what we were talking about.”

If following the game plan means anything, it often results in balanced scoring. Thus far this season, the Trojans — who average a conference best 14.6 goals per game — have a total of eight players averaging at least one goal per contest.

“We really don’t plan to give this guy or that guy a shot,” Vavic said. “We really play to what the situation is. If we play to the opponent, and see what they’re doing, we’ll be OK.”

But even more notable might be the fact that two freshmen, two-meter Jeremy Davie and driver Nikola Vavic, lead the team in scoring with a combined 53 goals on the year.

Even relying on freshmen hasn’t stopped the team from swimming past many of the challenges thrown its way.

Outside of their loss in Palo Alto, Calif., the Trojans have posted a 15-game winning streak, which included NorCal and SoCal tournament titles.

“We have done a very good job of winning games when we really needed to,” Vavic said. “We’ve really been fantastic in pressure situations. I feel that this team has a tendency to rise to the occasion and I think they can do it again.”