In a key face-off at home Saturday, the women’s water polo team fended off Cal with an 11-6 victory, holding off the Bears in a chippy rivalry game. With a win, the Bears could have won the MPSF conference with the program’s first-ever 5-0 sweep. Instead, the Trojans rose to the pressure and handled Cal in a dominant performance on both sides of the ball.
Cal started the game on the attack, punching the Trojans in the mouth with an early goal. Senior captain driver Brianna Daboub volleyed a shot into the net to tie the game up briefly, but the Bears responded quickly and held onto the 2-1 lead for the rest of the period.
Play in the opening period was intense, forcing the refs to whistle for minor penalties every few seconds. But as the Trojans entered the second period, they began to adapt to the Bears’ physical style of play, using penalties to their advantage and responding with equal force.
The second period saw a shift in momentum, as the Trojans began to take over in the center position. Daboub battled again for the ball down low, turning over her shoulder and forcing a shot home to tie up the game at 2-2. From there, the Trojans never trailed behind again.
Senior utility Annika Jensen softly touched in a shot on a 6-on-6 power play, and the lights flickered on over the pool as the Trojans took the lead. A counter-attack goal from sophomore utility Maud Megens stretched the lead to 4-2, and although the Bears responded with a late goal, the Trojans carried a lead and the momentum into halftime.
“We knew it was going to be a physical, aggressive game when we came into it,” Megens said. “I think we just took some time to adjust and get comfortable, and then we were able to come together and really play our game.”
Junior goalkeeper Amanda Longan clinched the victory with a dominant performance in goal, making 15 saves and shutting out Cal in the fourth quarter. Despite the Bears’ ability to score early in the game, Longan smothered the team’s attack in the second half, gaining confidence with a series of fearsome, one-handed blocks.
In the third period, Longan swam several feet off her line to overtake a center with a wide-open lane to the goal, shocking the attacker into turning the ball over. The gutsy play earned a chorus of gasps, followed by a raucous cheer, from USC supporters.
If Longan had miscalculated and the center had passed the ball on, the risk would have been disastrous, leaving the empty net gaping and defenseless. But it paid off, bolstering the team’s confidence and setting up the Trojan defense for a lights-out final period.
“There’s a slim chance that works,” Longan said of the play. “I’m not really sure why I decided to go, but I just read the situation and I thought I could get there on time. In an instant, I just took a shot and did it.”
With the defense locked down, the USC offense began to fire up. Both Megens and Jensen notched hat tricks in the second half, and while Cal was able to find the net twice in the third period, it wasn’t enough to keep up. On a 6-on-5 exclusion play at the end of the period, Megens slotted her third goal, pushing the lead to 8-6. The Cal bench was furious, and head coach Coralie Simmons earned a yellow card after slamming a cone into the concrete of the pool deck.
The Trojans controlled the final period with ease, with Jensen notching 2 more goals to add cushion to the Trojans’ lead. With time expiring, Longan held the ball to draw out the clock, only passing with a couple of seconds left on the shot clock. But everything seemed to be going right for the Trojans as Megens lofted a ball easily over the keeper, giving the Trojans an 11-6 lead with a minute left.
As the final buzzer sounded, relief filled the team. With the win, the Trojans improved to 2-0 in MPSF play, holding off the Bears’ attempt at winning the outright conference title. Cal has now dropped to 4-1 in conference play, and without anymore scheduled MSPF games, the Bears will have to wait to see the fate of the conference title.
For USC, however, the hard work has just begun. Over the next three weekends, the Trojans will face No. 1 Stanford, No. 4 UCLA and No. 19 San José State, opening up an opportunity to stamp out another conference title victory. The greatest challenge will be the team’s matchup with the Cardinal on Friday, giving them a chance to knock off the top-ranked team in the nation and stake a claim on the top seed entering the MPSF and NCAA championship tournaments.
“We have a lot of confidence out of this game,” Megens said. “Our team is capable of so many things. If we have a straight line forward, we can get anyone.”