In front of easily the most raucous crowd to squeeze into McDonald’s Swim Stadium all year, the No. 2 USC men’s water polo team (20-2, 4-2) defeated No. 3 UCLA for the third time this season, 8-5.
From the beginning, the Trojans managed to quiet the smattering of powder-blue fans hungry for an upset, amassing a 4-1 lead at the end of the first half. Though in the previous two games against the Bruins the Trojans had squandered early leads, they would never trail in this game.
Entering this matchup, team leaders such as junior two-meter Matt Burton — who scored one goal and blocked several dangerous UCLA shots — emphasized a need to shore up the team defense, believing it was not yet championship-caliber and on par with the Trojans’ prolific offense. USC coach Jovan Vavic noticed a defensive tenacity in this game that has sometimes been lacking this season.
“The guys hustled,” Vavic said. “We were quick to loose balls and we were quick to help each other. We really did a great job in just pressing the two-meter men, not letting them get the ball. Aside from the fourth quarter where we fell asleep for a couple of possessions, it was a great team effort.”
Of course, the all-MPSF goaltending of junior Joel Dennerley helped bail the team out of defensive breakdowns, as he denied all manners of shots — lob, skip, or straight — with 12 saves on the afternoon. Not only was Dennerley impressed with the team’s defensive effort but also its toughness. In an earlier loss to Stanford, some suggested that the Cardinal’s physicality posed problems for the younger, smaller Trojans.
“It’s always a physical matchup against the crosstown rivals,” Dennerley said. “We were pumped up before the game and just took it to them, giving everything we’ve got. We matched up well against some bigger guys.”
On the offensive side, two young Trojans — freshman two-meter Jeremy Davie and sophomore driver Tobias Preuss — combined to score five goals. UCLA defenders punished Davie all afternoon with kicks and elbows while he was planted in front of their net. However, the Australian persevered, scoring two goals to add to his team lead in that category. Preuss, who recorded a hat-trick, played his best game of the season.
“Tobias was very fired up for this game. His couple of goals early in the game really set the tone. I think he actually hurt their goalie’s confidence early,” Vavic said. “Jeremy did not have a great game against UCLA up north, where he picked up three early ejection fouls. But he was outstanding [in this game]. He established great position in two-meters, scored two goals and fought really hard.”
Having recorded four consecutive victories against UCLA dating back to last season, the Trojans are brimming with confidence. Still, they are aware that, should they see the Bruins again in the postseason, these victories are largely irrelevant; UCLA will not simply wilt.
“We’re getting toward the end of the season and we know the stakes are higher in the finals,” Dennerley said. “If we happen to match up against UCLA, we’re confident we can beat them. But they’re still a great team, and we’ll need to take our games to a higher level.”
To cap off the day, the fans that did not bolt to the USC-Arizona State football game saw the Trojans’ reserves simply overpower an unranked Whittier team, 16-1. The nonconference game marked the second time this season that USC defeated the Poets.
In its last home game of the season on Thursday at 5 p.m., the team will face No. 10 Pepperdine.