Sometimes, an underdog simply capitalizes on its chances and has one or two players outperform expectations. Such was the case Saturday when the No. 1 USC men’s water polo team (15-1) suffered a 5-3 loss — its first of the season — to No. 6 Stanford (7-4).
The Trojans’ inexperience showed for the first time this season as the team admittedly struggled to overcome its first encounter with adversity. Stanford goalie Brian Pingree thwarted many Trojan scoring opportunities, denying a barrage of quality shots and recording 14 saves on the afternoon. The masterful goaltending emboldened an already raucous Stanford crowd that jeered the youthful Trojans for the entire match.
“The crowd surprised us. They had a ton of fans there that were heckling us, and that took us out of our game a little bit,” junior two-meter Matthew Burton said. “When they first came out, they had some great intensity.”
Uncharacteristically, the Trojans — averaging a Mountain Pacific Sports Federation-leading 15.4 goals per game — were held scoreless in the first period and trailed 3-1 at halftime, with freshman driver Nikola Vavic contributing the only tally.
“We haven’t had one single game all season where the goalie blocked seven of our shots in the first quarter,” USC coach Jovan Vavic said. “We actually shot the ball well in practice, but we did not shoot well in the game. We were 3-for-26 in shooting. That’s a terrible percentage.”
The second half began inauspiciously for the Trojans, as Stanford increased its lead to an insurmountable four goals with just 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. USC sophomore utility Mace Rapsey scored two meaningless goals, rendering the score more palatable at 5-3.
Although tarnishing what had been a perfect record, this hiccup might benefit the Trojans in the long run. Accustomed to fast starts, USC now knows what it takes to mount a comeback. Certainly, playing in the hostile Avery Aquatic Complex was also instructive for the young team.
“You obviously don’t want it to happen, but it’s a good learning experience for us to see what it’s like to go down and have some adversity,” redshirt sophomore two-meter Zayne Balel said. “From now on, we should know what we need to do to come back.”
One Trojan drew a parallel between this loss and USC’s loss to UCLA last year at the NorCal Tournament, expecting this setback to reinvigorate his team.
“This kind of thing happened last year. We had a tough loss against UCLA and we were able to turn things around,” Burton said. “We won every game after that and ended up winning a championship. It’s much better to lose now than to lose later. We have to learn from this loss and get ready for Cal.”
As Burton mentioned, there is no opportunity for the team to dwell on this loss because No. 4 UC Berkeley — a team the Trojans have yet to face — is next on the docket. The USC men’s water polo team will play its second home game of the season against the Bears on Saturday at 10 a.m.