The men’s water polo team will travel to the Spieker Aquatics Complex in Berkeley, Calif. this Saturday as the No. 1 team in the country to play in the semifinals of the 2016 NCAA tournament.
With their MPSF championship game victory over crosstown rival UCLA last week, the Trojans (23-1) earned the top seed in the NCAA tournament and will battle the winner of the quarterfinal contest between the No. 10 Harvard Crimson (26-6) and No. 8 UC Davis Aggies (23-5).
The Men of Troy, with just one loss this entire season, are favored going into an opposing field loaded with UCLA, Cal or Pomona-Pitzer waiting for the Trojans in the championship game.
“We definitely think we’re going to win it all. Every single game we go into, we have a firm belief that we can win,” junior driver Blake Edwards said. “This year, we’re really excited and we’ve shown a lot of maturity as a team this season. There’s a much higher expectation that we’re going to go all the way.”
Before Troy can win its 10th title in the past 20 years, it will have to overcome the powerful arms of either UC Davis or Harvard.
Despite playing only hours away from each other, USC and UC Davis have not played a single game this season against each other and will be meeting for the first time since September 2014 when the Trojans scorched the Aggies 19-3.
Speaking of long absences, USC hasn’t seen Harvard since Oct. 5, 2002, when the Trojans bested the Crimson 14-6 in the semifinals in the Nor-Cal Tournament.
On the other hand, both Harvard and UC Davis have squabbled this season, splitting the season series with a win apiece.
The fact that USC has not faced neither Harvard nor UC Davis at all this season, however, presents a disadvantage for both teams in that their scouting and preparation will be based solely on statistics and footage instead of in-pool play.
“Obviously, we have to be cautious of both of those teams. They’re both are going to be really excited to play in a tournament game. But, our coaches are world class and have really prepared us well for them,” Edwards said. “It doesn’t really make us nervous that we haven’t played them before. We’ll be prepared for them like anyone else.”
Fresh off its first conference title since 1997, UC Davis brings to the table a talented offense led by sophomore Ido Goldschmidt, who has scored 45 goals and racked up 41 assists on the year, earning him Wester Water Polo Player of the Year honors.
In goal for the Aggies is tested junior Spencer Creed, who has 221 stops this season to go along with 12 wins against ranked opponents.
A key for the Men of Troy will be to limit UC Davis on the powerplay as the Aggies have converted at a 54.1 percent clip, while allowing goals on just four of their past 25 man disadvantages.
If the Crimson, fresh off a thrilling 13-12 sudden-death overtime victory over Bucknell, defeat the Aggies in the play-in game, they could certainly bring a momentum that could be hard for the Trojans to stop.
In Harvard’s fifth straight win last Saturday, senior Dan Stevens netted a hat trick and contributed two assists to bring his season tally to 32 goals and 21 assists.
However, a proper analysis of Harvard’s offense wouldn’t be complete without mentioning one of the nation’s best talents in senior Noah Harrison, who has racked up 81 goals, 35 assists and 56 steals.
Harrison will help alleviate any defensive burden that sophomore goaltender Anthony Ridgley will face from the Trojans this weekend.
Against either team, the Trojans will have their hands full.
But, thanks to the help of MPSF Coach of the Year Jovan Vavic, USC has the opportunity to compete in its 12th-straight NCAA Championship game and potentially win its seventh title in 10 consecutive seasons.
Edwards and freshman Marin Dasic agree that the team owes its success to the longtime head coach.
“[Vavic] has done it all. The way he prepares for every practice and every game is amazing,” Dasic said. “All of the hard work he puts in and how dedicated he is to this program is something that we should be proud of because we have a coach that is the best coach of the century. He hasn’t been this successful by accident.”