After opening conference play with a 21-5 win over Pepperdine, the No. 4 USC men’s water polo team will try to spark some home cooking Saturday as it clashes with No. 5 UC Santa Barbara in its first game at Uytengsu Aquatics Center this season.
With their rout over the Waves last week, the 11-2 Trojans began Mountain Pacific Sports Federation competition on the right foot and rebounded from the Kap7 NorCal Classic, where the team suffered its first two losses of the season at the hands of No. 2 UCLA and No. 4 Cal.
Now, the youthful Trojan squad will try to build a winning streak in the early stages of conference play before getting another crack at the rival Bruins and Golden Bears later this month.
Making up one of the youngest Trojan squads in recent memory, the team’s freshmen have quickly adjusted to the collegiate level of play and to the gameplan of 12-time National Coach of the Year Jovan Vavic.
Nearing the midway point of the season, freshman goalies McQuin Baron and Ben Goncharenko have combined for a total 114 saves, while freshmen drivers Matteo Morelli and Grant Stein have tallied 28 and 26 goals so far respectively — only senior driver and captain Kostas Genidounias has netted more shots with a team-high 41 goals on the year. Genidounias believes his first-year teammates have found their niche so far.
“It’s very encouraging and really important for our freshmen to step up,” Genidounias said. “Players like [freshman utility man] James Walters, Grant Stein, Mateo Morelli and [freshman utility man] Mihajlo Milevic — it’s really encouraging to see them play and score and do well on defense because they’ve been here for a month or two and they’re playing like that — wait until you see them in a couple of months or in a couple years.”
These freshmen will be key in pulling off a win over the 8-2 Gauchos. One of UCSB’s two losses came at the hands of USC on the first day of the NorCal Classic last month. The other came to Cal.
The Trojans will, on the defensive end, look to limit Gaucho driver Eric Van de Mortel, who leads the team in scoring with 16 goals this season, and on the offensive end, continue spreading the ball around — 10 different Trojans scored in the team’s victory over Pepperdine, and Vavic has emphasized such ball movement as a key part of the Trojan offense.
“That has been our trademark for the last few years,” Vavic said. “We really want more people to be involved and play freely. This is nothing new for us — if you look back at the last 10 years, we’ve always had more people involved. We’re just continuing to build the same way, and we always encouraged players to be aggressive, and it’s been great.”