The USC men’s water polo team suffered a rare setback on Saturday, falling 10-6 to Pacific for the first time since 2002.
The Trojans (20-2, 2-1) entered the game with the top spot in the nation, setting the stage for a clash of Mountain Pacific Sports Federation titans, as Pacific (16-3, 3-1) entered the game just two spots below.
More than 1,300 fans attended the game in Stockton, Calif. and fostered a raucous environment to support their hometown Tigers. The Trojans struggled to stop Pacific’s high-octane offensive attack, highlighting an issue on defense that has recently become more prevalent for head coach Jovan Vavic’s squad.
USC gave up 10 goals for the second consecutive game. They had previously allowed that many points just once in the team’s previous 20 matches this season.
“We are giving up, again, too many goals,” Vavic said. “We just have to be more aware and tougher at defense.”
The defensive problems were highlighted through the first three quarters, as the Trojans gave up eight goals to dig themselves an 8-5 hole entering the final stanza.
Another tough aspect for the Trojans was the hostile crowd. As the undisputed top program in the nation, USC often becomes the marquee matchup for opponents — and the Tigers were clearly amped to host the Trojans.
“It was a great atmosphere — lots of people, lots of cheering,” Vavic said. “You need to welcome that and enjoy it. But at the same time, some younger players do get nervous.”
Though it certainly provided another challenge for the Trojans, Vavic welcomed the boisterous scene in Stockton.
“We were talking about it before the game,” Vavic said. “If you’re the No. 1-ranked team in the country, people will come watch you play. And that is why you play for USC.”
The Trojans held close in the beginning, scoring first and jumping out to a 2-1 lead behind two goals from senior utility man Mace Rapsey.
But Pacific responded by scoring four consecutive goals through the second quarter. The Trojans came back and cut the margin to 5-4 off a five-meter penalty shot from junior driver Kostas Genidounias with 3:55 left in the second frame, but entered the break down 6-4 after the Tigers converted on a power play.
The Trojans would get no closer than that two-goal margin, as the Tigers simply wore down USC’s defense and continued to pile it on.
Some of USC’s stars continued their consistent play for the Trojans, as Rapsey and Genidounias led the Trojans with two goals apiece. But senior two-meter Jeremy Davie and senior driver Nikola Vavic each contributed just one goal.
The loss dropped the Trojans behind Pacific by half a game for the top spot in the MPSF.
As dynasties form, program outsiders can be quick to make comparisons between current teams and past squads. But coach Vavic asserts that every team has its own strengths and weaknesses.
“This is a different team than the team we had last year,” Vavic said. “We have some young players and they are going to gain from this experience.”
The Hall of Fame-worthy coach knows that the Trojans need not overreact to one loss, but simply keep their noses to the grindstone.
“I think that focus is the biggest thing,” Vavic said. “We’re plenty strong, we have good speed … That’s the way we want it.”
USC will trek back to NorCal next week, when they visit California in a high-profile match that will be televised on the Pac-12 Networks.
The team will then return home to the friendly confines of the Uytengsu Aquatics Center on Nov. 10 for a matchup against the Pepperdine Waves.
Follow us on Twitter @dailytrojan