Coming off a 14-5 victory over then-No. 5 UC Santa Barbara in its first home game of the season Oct. 4, the No. 4 USC men’s water polo team will head across town to UCLA for the SoCal Tournament this weekend, aiming to avenge the Trojans’ only two losses on the year.
USC enters the tournament 12-2 on the season, having been dealt its two defeats by then-No. 2 UCLA and then-No. 34 Cal at the Kap7 NorCal Classic last month. The Trojans will play Air Force followed by either UCSB or Pepperdine Oct. 11, all of whom the Trojans have defeated at least once this season. If they’re able to clear these teams again the first day, the Trojans could potentially meet UCLA or Cal in the semifinals or finals of the tournament on Oct. 12.
With the possibility of facing the 14-1 Bears or the 15-0 Bruins again this weekend, USC head coach Jovan Vavic will look for his team to have made adjustments for the tournament. The Trojans were defeated by narrow margins in both games — falling 9-7 to the Bruins and 11-10 to the Bears — Vavic emphasized the importance of the shutting the door in the closing stages of the game.
“We’ve got to play better at the end,” he said. “Against UCLA we had a one-goal lead and we made too many careless passes at the end of the game — we just started to turn the ball over. When the game was still in anybody’s hands we missed a wide-open counterattack, we made a bad pass, and the next counterattack, they scored a goal. Things like that are what kill you.”
In their battle last Saturday against the Gauchos, the Trojans broke away early and had no trouble closing out the game, taking over the lead after UCSB scored the first goal and never looking back. The 12-time National Coach of the Year liked what he saw from his team in its last game before the tournament.
“I thought we played with lots of energy,” Vavic said. “We started the game with a 6-1 lead and we created quite a few opportunities by countering on almost every possession. So the energy was really great, our defense was excellent in the first half, we gave up only two goals, and it was great to see that nine different people scored a goal.”
Senior driver Kostas Genidounias, the Trojans’ top scorer of the 2014 campaign with 44 goals so far, led the Trojans in scoring with a hat trick Saturday, but the team’s performance on the defensive side of the ball is what Genidounias believes will make or break the Trojans if they’re to rematch Cal or UCLA this weekend.
“We just have to make more stops,” Genidounias said. “We allowed 20 goals in total in those two games — nine [goals] and 11 [goals]. We need to get that number way lower than 20. We have the offense, we just didn’t have the defense in those games, so we just have to play some really tough defense.”
One difference in the Trojan squad this weekend from the NorCal Classic will be the presence of sophomore driver Nick Bell, who made his season debut for the team Saturday against the Gauchos after a back injury forced him to miss the first 11 games of the year.
“It felt great to be back,” Bell said. “I’ve been waiting, I’ve been out for seven weeks now and it’s been killing me to get back in the water.”
Faced with the prospect of going up against UCLA’s top scorers Alex Roelse and Cristiano Mirarchi, who have notched 25 goals apiece on the year, Bell reiterated the need for the Trojans to be on-point defensively this weekend.
“Our defensive game could definitely be stepped up,” Bell said. “Defense is going to be very important [this weekend]. We stressed defensive counterattack and frontcourt defense [in practice]. Those are our biggest objectives for the games, and those are going to be the key in limiting the other teams’ goals.”