After an impressive showing in the NorCal Invitational, the USC men’s water polo team returns home this weekend to face California in the Trojans’ first game in Mountain Pacific Sports Federation play. The Golden Bears, who also participated in the NorCal Invitational, are coming off two tough losses to UCLA and Stanford.
“Any time we play Cal it’s an exciting game,” USC coach Jovan Vavic said. “We just know that all these games will come down to one or two plays, so we cannot relax.”
The main challenge the team faces against Cal is its attacking duo of Collin Smith and Aleksa Saponjic. In nine games this season, Smith, a junior, has already scored 29 goals. Saponjic, who won a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics with Serbia, scored 30 goals as a freshman last season.
“We need to be aware of where those guys are,” Vavic said. “They create so many opportunities, so our whole team needs to be aware. They are their biggest weapons.”
Smith and Saponjic lead a Golden Bears attack that is the most dangerous in fast-break situations. With speed on the outside, they are capable of scoring goals in bunches, which is something the entire USC defense is focused on stopping.
“Our challenge is going to be stopping them in the counter attack and making sure we anticipate early and get back on defense,” senior two-meter Matt Burton said. “They have some guys with blinding speed, so that’s going to be our main focus.”
In last season’s only meeting between the two teams, USC won 9-8 in sudden death overtime at Berkeley, a key victory that contributed greatly to the team’s postseason success and dashed Cal’s hopes at unseating the Trojans. Coming into this game, the team is fully aware that the Golden Bears are hungry to return the favor.
“I’m sure that they are going to come in with a chip on their shoulder, given the intensity of last year’s game,” Burton said. “We’ll be prepared for this game. We always are.”
Given how well the team played this past weekend, though, coach Vavic is very confident in his team’s ability to slow down the Bears’ attack.
“We have done a good job at stopping our opponent when we needed to get a stop,” Vavic said. “Our half court defense and 5-on-6 defense have been pretty consistent.”
USC’s two goalies, sophomore Ely Bonilla and junior James Clark, have played extremely well thus far, allowing an average of 4.25 goals per game between the two of them. Clark, in his first year with the program, knows full well the challenge that Cal presents in such a young season.
“They play a physical game that will be tough to overcome,” Clark said. “It won’t be easy this weekend.”
Sunday’s game begins at 1 p.m. at McDonald’s Swim Stadium. It will also be televised on ESPNU.