The No. 3 men’s water polo team suffered its first loss of the season on Sunday at the Kap7 NorCal Classic. The Trojans (10-1) racked up two wins against top-20 teams in the early rounds, but fell 9-7 to No. 2 UCLA in the semifinals.
The first game of the tournament was a rematch of the Trojans’ previous encounter against No. 19 Air Force; the results were very similar as USC took the match 20-7. Nonetheless, head coach Jovan Vavic said that the team approached the game differently than last time.
“The first time we played them, they were very tired,” Vavic said. “They played four games prior to playing us, so we knew they would be much more physically exhausted in the game we played in Redlands. This game was the first game of the tournament, so we knew they’d be playing a little better.”
The Trojans, as usual, started out hot with a 6-0 surge. In the end, eleven different scorers helped put the game away for this deep Trojan squad, including senior driver Rex Butler who led the game and the day in scoring for the Trojans. According to Vavic, though, Butler was not always a great collegiate scorer.
“He’s become a better shooter,” Vavic said. “He was an excellent shooter when he came to us but wasn’t very confident. He would miss a shot and then he would shut down.”
Vavic talked about Butler, emphasizing his all-around improvement.
“Rex [Butler] is a mature player right now,” Vavic said. “He’s been with the program for four and a half years. He’s much more confident and much stronger. He was not physically strong when he first started playing for us. Now he’s a veteran. He knows the system. He has improved his defense very much.”
Their second game against UC Santa Barbara was a much fiercer contest, but whenever the Gauchos got close, the Trojans started to pull away. USC surged again to a 3-0 lead at the start. The Gauchos cut the lead to 6-5 in the third, and again to 8-6. After that point, however, the Trojans were in control, eventually winning 12-7.
In addition to Butler, senior driver Kostas Genidounias came out strong on Saturday. Together they are a key part to this team’s success.
“They have a great understanding of each other’s movements in the water,” Vavic said. “They complement each other really well because both of them are good shooters but also are very good passers, and both are accomplished players. Having these two makes the opponent worry about what we can do.”
The two seniors were near the top of the scoring lists in both games Saturday. Butler led scoring against Air Force in the first with four goals while Genidounias was tied for third with two scores. Against UC Santa Barbara, Genidounias led scoring with three goals, while Butler was tied for second with two goals.
In addition to the two veterans, freshman goalie McQuin Baron also made a big impact for the Trojans on Saturday with a career-high 15 saves against the Gauchos. His previous high was 14 against Pacific earlier this season.
The Trojans headed into Sunday never having trailed a minute of the season. But UCLA has been a thorn in USC’s side over the past few seasons and lived up to its reputation.
USC fell behind 2-0 early on and finished up the first quarter at a 3-2 deficit. The Trojans fought their way to the forefront though, heading into halftime with a 5-4 lead. The two powerhouses traded goals throughout the third quarter. The Bruins took over in the fourth, though. USC had a 7-6 lead, but UCLA surged for three straight goals to win the game 9-7 and end the Trojans’ NorCal Classic title aspirations.
Vavic reiterated the inexperience of his team but remained optimistic for the future.
“We have so many new players,” he said. “I have confidence in this group … They know how to win.”