After winning 13 games straight, the men’s water polo team suffered its first loss of the season on Sunday in the championship game of the Mountain Pacific Invitational against No. 4 UCLA.
The Trojans faced top teams during the long weekend: They played a one-off match against No. 13 UC San Diego on Thursday, then moved on to tournament matches against San Jose State on Friday, No. 10 UC Irvine and No. 3 Stanford on Saturday and finally UCLA on Sunday.
Both matches went down to the wire on Saturday, but USC rallied from behind against UCI and Stanford to earn a spot in the championship.
“I thought we had a great tournament and we proved ourselves in a lot of clutch moments,” senior utility James Walters said. “I thought we played really well. Then, in this last game [against UCLA], things obviously didn’t work out the way we wanted it to, but I am still confident going into the next ones. I think we are going to learn a lot.”
The Trojans battled Stanford Saturday evening in a semi-final match that came down to the final seconds. The Cardinal arrived at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center with something to prove after losing to USC 8-6 just 16 days earlier — and it showed in their play. The Trojans scored in the first 13 seconds and essentially held the lead for the entirety of the game when the two sides first met on Sept. 8, but the opposite was true on Sunday. USC raced out to an early lead, but the advantage quickly slipped away from the Trojans until the end.
“There was more energy in the pool — I could feel it,” Walters said. “Everyone was more fired up about it because it was the second time we were playing, and [the Cardinal] didn’t want to go down a second time, obviously. They were a lot tougher.”
USC entered the final quarter trailing by one. A power-play goal from sophomore driver Thomas Dunstan knotted things up early in the fourth, and another man-up score — this time from senior 2-meter Lachlan Edwards — pushed the Trojans ahead 9-8 with five minutes left to play. But the Cardinal equalized quickly, even after senior driver Blake Edwards netted his second goal of the game to stake USC a short-lived 10-9 advantage. Finally, senior driver Matteo Morelli played hero for the Trojans, scoring the go-ahead goal with 28 seconds left in an 11-10 victory.
Following their tough match Saturday evening, the Trojans then had to make the quick transition and play UCLA the next morning. The Bruins had already defeated top-ranked Cal the previous day and were gunning to take down No. 2 USC next. The Trojans pulled ahead early, but UCLA seized the momentum in the second half. After a back-and-forth third quarter, the Bruins grabbed a one-goal lead with 13 seconds left in the period and didn’t relinquish the lead from there. Despite their lack of rest before Sunday’s contest, the Trojans refused to blame fatigue for the loss.
“UCLA had two tough games before this, so we’re all in the same boat,” Walters said. “They ended up winning it this time.”
The Trojans will face the Bruins again later in the fall, but that matchup won’t come until November, in the last game of the regular season. Until then, the team is determined to apply lessons from this weekend over the rest of the campaign.
“I think we are going to have to take a step back, watch video and sleep on it a bit and look at it,” Walters said. “We let a lot of shots in that we shouldn’t have, and we weren’t quick enough in a lot of our defensive situations. We are going to get better at that next time.”
Ultimately, the Trojans were disappointed with their loss, but they still came away with a second-place finish in a tournament of top teams in front of strong fan support.
“We love playing at home,” Walters said. “At the end of the day, this is the sport we love to play, and we get to play it in front of all our friends and family. Having an opportunity to play at home is one of the best moments for an athlete.”