When USC faltered a week ago on the road at Stanford, a multitude of issues plagued the Trojans in their 5-3 loss: inaccurate shooting, a lack of focus and an inability to contend with a more physical Cardinal team.
Seven days later, in a matchup with conference rival Cal, the inexperienced bunch shored up many of those lagging issues, but instead, new problems presented themselves, namely on the defensive end.
“We struggled with communication in defense, and [Cal’s] players did their job,” said junior goalie Joel Dennerley. “Every single one of our guys was making a mistake, and they capitalized on that.”
Trailing No. 2 California 8-2 at the end of the second quarter, the No. 1 USC men’s water polo team (15-2, 1-2) found itself in a widening hole against an offense that couldn’t miss, eventually falling 12-9 despite a late surge of their own.
“We just didn’t come out the way we should’ve,” said freshman driver Nikola Vavic. “We were ready, but things were just going their way. There wasn’t much we could do about it.”
While the offense sputtered in the early goings, Cal took advantage of a series of defensive miscues on behalf of the Trojans, working their way to a 5-0 lead before Vavic finally put the Trojans on the scoreboard with 28 seconds remaining in the first frame.
Yet, even with their limited offensive production, USC had an even greater difficulty stringing any goals together. Following Vavic’s goal, the Trojans turned the ball over on subsequent possessions, while the opposing Golden Bears made scoring look routine.
After it’s five-goal outburst in the first period, Cal continued its success, scoring three more goals before halftime to balloon its lead to a six-goal margin.
“They’re a good offensive team and have some good shooters, but for me, personally, it was a really disappointing game,” Dennerley said. “I let in some easy goals and it’s something I need to fix this week. It allowed them to get on a roll, and I take responsibility for this game in that regard.”
But Cal’s scoring shouldn’t come as a surprise, as it features two attackers in Ivan Rackov and Luka Saponjic, who presently rank among the leaders in scoring nationally.
“When you give them time and space, they’ll put their shots away,” Dennerley said. “It was good offense by them.”
Rackov made a point to let Dennerley know how proficient the Bears were offensively. Following his hat trick-clinching goal late in the second frame, Rackov pointed at the Trojans’ goalie, holding up three fingers and rotating them from side to side.
But Dennerley shrugged it off.
“I try not to worry about that,” he said. “Players just try to get a psychological advantage and will talk crap to you. He’s a good player and a good shooter. He’s always going to get goals and our job is to stop him. We didn’t do that.”
Luckily, the Trojans experienced a late scoring barrage of their own, to at least make the game competitive. Despite an 8-2 deficit at halftime, USC tallied seven second-half goals, with five coming in the fourth period.
“This was a team we beat before, so we know we can play against them,” Vavic said, who finished with three goals on the day. “So, in the second half, we just knew we had to relax. They were just getting some lucky plays here and there, and we weren’t.”
But as expected, such a lead was hard to overcome.
“This game was really important, but we still have a long way to go in the season,” Dennerley said. “Depending on how things go, we can still be on top come the end of the year. We just need to focus on preparing for next week and fixing what happened today.”