After a resounding 11-5 win over No. 6 UC Irvine to cap off the regular season on Saturday at Anteater Pool in Irvine, Calif., the No. 2 USC men’s water polo team will travel north to begin an even more imposing challenge.
Following a regular season in which the Trojans (23-2, 6-2) stumbled just twice, the youthful bunch will face No. 7 seed UC Santa Barbara Friday in the first round of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament, with the winner advancing to the semifinals.
Initially, USC will face a familiar Gaucho team, one that it has been able to dispose of on two separate occasions in 2010.
In early October, the Trojans faced Santa Barbara in the semifinals of the SoCal Tournament. After a strong opening frame, USC ballooned its lead to a 4-0 margin before watching it nearly collapse after five unanswered goals from the Gauchos. Eventually the Trojans secured a 7-6 win, but strong play from Santa Barbara certainly left a visible impression.
“They played well,” USC coach Jovan Vavic said at the time. “They have quite a few experienced foreign players and are really tough.”
The Gauchos later traveled to McDonald’s Swim Stadium on Oct. 24 for a conference matchup, and the result was a 13-9 victory in favor of the host Trojans.
But despite a level of comfort with a seventh-seeded UCSB opponent, the Trojans aren’t looking ahead to a possible matchup with crosstown rival No. 3 seed UCLA in the semi-finals.
Instead, they claim to be focused on notching yet another victory over their neighbors to the north.
“Santa Barbara, in my opinion, is one of the best teams in the country,” Vavic said. “They’re strong and have very good kids. They are right behind us in terms of team defense this year.”
But offense, however, might be Santa Barbara’s strong suit in the end. The Gauchos feature a senior utility in Milos Golic, who currently has amassed 53 goals on the season — second highest in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation — and collectively, they are coming off an 11-goal effort in their season finale against Pepperdine.
Golic, though, will be forced to contend with an equally skilled MPSF leader in USC’s Joel Dennerley, a junior goalie ranked first in the conference in goals allowed per game with 5.2.
Vavic continues to call Dennerley the best goalie he has ever coached during his 17-year stint at USC.
If successful against Golic and the Gauchos, Dennerley and company will move within two games of an MPSF Tournament title and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, which is scheduled to begin Dec. 4 in Berkeley, Calif.