After nearly a month since its last home game, the No. 1 USC men’s water polo team will play at UC Irvine before returning home to McDonald’s Swim Stadium for six of its final seven regular season matches.
“It’s nice to be able to come back home this weekend,” USC coach Jovan Vavic said. “We have all our long road trips behind us now, with our big wins over Stanford and in the NorCal tournament, so we are looking forward to staying close to home.”
Thursday’s contest will be a rematch of this year’s SoCal tournament semifinals, a game in which the Trojans (17-0, 2-0) won 10-5. In that game, UCI (14-5, 0-2) had the score even at 3-3 at the end of the first quarter. The Trojans expect a similar fighting spirit in this week’s matchup.
“They have a really good all-around team,” senior two-meter Matt Burton said. “They always come out hard and just work. They’re going to come out with a ton of energy at their home pool and hopefully we can match that energy and play with the poise and experience that we have.”
Over the course of the team’s four-year run of dominance, players have grown accustomed to opponents’ energy. USC’s reputation precedes it, and everybody strives to unseat the kings.
“Whenever you’re the number one team, everyone’s always excited to play against you,” Burton said. “We look forward to it. That’s where you like to be, in that number one spot.”
At present, the Anteaters are reeling, having lost four of their last six games, including each of their first two games of Mountain Pacific Sports Federation play. Coach Vavic expects UCI to come out with a sense of urgency given its early conference struggles.
“I had a meeting with the guys yesterday and brought up the example of Stanford’s football team beating us [in 2006] when they were ranked very, very low in the national rankings, and they beat us,” Vavic said. “The point was that everybody can beat anybody, and UCI is not a team to take lightly. They can be dangerous.”
The Trojans’ defense is focused on UCI’s multiple scoring options. The Anteaters have two drivers, Bojan Hrlec and Mitch Wise, who have scored 52 and 47 goals respectively this season, and three others who have scored at least 20 goals in 2012.
“They have just an overall very good attack,” senior driver Tobias Preuss said. “They have great drivers that are very explosive. They get themselves into very good finishing positions and can be extremely dangerous if you’re not prepared.”
USC has won its last 19 games dating back to last season. But the team is still focused on ways it can improve.
“We still have a lot of space to improve,” Preuss said. “There are lots of things to improve on. But that’s OK, as long as we go game by game and really analyze what we did right and what we did wrong, we’ll be in a good spot when all is said and done.”