The No. 2-ranked USC men’s water polo team will open up Mountain Pacific Sports Federation play at home this Saturday in the Uytengsu Aquatics Center against the No. 9-ranked UC Irvine Anteaters.
USC (12-1) got back in the win column last weekend with two wins by large margins against Princeton (22-4) and Whittier (23-2), in which 13 different Trojans players netted goals between the two games.
As they enter conference play, the Trojans are without the No. 1 ranking that they’d carried since 2011 before losing to crosstown rival UCLA in the championship match of the NorCal Tournament, which also snapped their 41-game winning streak.
According to Vavic, though, that is a streak of the past. The team is going to simply focus on the task — winning a championship. And that starts with beating the Anteaters to begin MPSF play on the right foot.
“It’s not about the streak, it’s not about winning all the games, but it’s about winning the championship,” said head coach Jovan Vavic, who is seeking his 13th national title as a coach.
The Anteaters come to town with a 10-2 overall record after just cracking the top 10 in this week’s rankings. They haven’t played since they fell to Loyola Marymount 12-9 in the ninth-place game of the NorCal Tournament two weeks ago.
UCI is led by senior driver Mitch Wise, who is the team’s top scorer with 45 goals. Anteaters head coach Marc Hunt has goalies Michael Bailey and Alex Kazmier split time between the posts. Bailey and Kazmier are averaging 11.3 and 12.4 saves per game respectively.
In total, the UCI defense is allowing 6.5 goals per game, which could take a hit after they take on the potent Trojan offense this weekend. USC is determined not to let any scoring opportunity bypass them.
“It starts with finishing our one-on-nobodies [one-on-ones with the opposing goalies] in practice and if we focus then, it will translate into us finishing them in games,” junior driver Kostas Genidounias said.
The Trojans are currently averaging 18.5 goals per game after putting in 241 goals in just 13 games. Senior driver and Cutino award candidate Nikola Vavic leads the team with 38 goals, followed by Genidounias, who has 33.
One player that has really motivated the team as the “hustle” guy, according to Genidounias, is redshirt sophomore two-meter Mac Carden.
“Jovan [Vavic] always says that hard work is something that we need so I just approach every practice and every game giving 110 percent,” Carden said. “I’ve been trying to show that through hustle I can improve my game, which has been driving up the team as well.”
Vavic continues to stress one element that is crucial if his team wants to win its sixth consecutive national championship: defense.
Through the latter half of the season, Vavic’s team has given up just under five goals per game with a 4.62 goals against average and players are hoping to lowering that average against UCI with the added emphasis on defense.
“Our defense hasn’t been on the level we wanted it be, and we work on it every day during training,” Genidounias said.
Many players see this Saturday’s game as a must-win game so that the team can have some momentum heading into the following weekend’s SoCal Tournament in Irvine, Calif.
“We need to be really focused this weekend so that we can get the win against UCI and then next we need to be at our best next weekend and win all four games so we can return back to No. 1,” Carden said.
Though the state-of-the-art facility in the Uytengsu Aquatics Center remains under construction, there is still plenty of space for fans in the upper stands. The two MPSF foes are set to clash at 1 p.m.
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