Trojans set for showdown with Bruins

After a two-game losing streak in mid-October, it appears as if USC is back on track.

In consecutive weekends, the No. 2 USC men’s water polo team (18-2, 3-2) has posted a total of three wins, two coming against top-10 ranked opponents, in order to position itself back into the heart of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation title race.

“I think that winning these close matches is toughening us up,” said USC coach Jovan Vavic after the Trojans claimed victories over No. 6 UC Santa Barbara and No. 7 Pacific. “It certainly gives us confidence going into any game, knowing that we can win.”

Last defense · Junior goalkeeper Joel Dennerley makes a save during a Cal match earlier this season. The Trojans will face UCLA on Saturday. - Katelynn Whitaker | Daily Trojan

But a Saturday showdown against crosstown rival No. 3 UCLA will certainly test the notion that the Trojans’ recent performances were all but an aberration.

“They are an experienced team,” Vavic said. “Their best players are seniors. It’s definitely going to be a great challenge for us.”

Whether challenging or not, it remains more than evident that the Trojans have had their fair share of success against the Bruins thus far in 2010.

On Oct. 3, USC notched a 9-8 win over its heated rivals in the finals of the SoCal Tournament following freshman driver Nikola Vavic’s goal with 35 seconds remaining. The victory marked their eighth consecutive tournament championship, sending the Trojans to the top of the polls.

Similarly, USC also defeated the Bruins by a score of 11-10 in the finals of the NorCal Tournament a month earlier. Despite holding an 8-4 lead heading into the fourth quarter, the Trojans surrendered six goals in the final frame, allowing UCLA to knot the score up at 10 apiece, before a goal by junior driver Peter Kurzeka put them on top for good.

“We learned they don’t give up,” Vavic said. “They play tough. In both games, they were down by three or four goals and they came back to tie the game. They’re very competitive.”

But as it’s to be expected in a heated rivalry, where both teams have won five out of the last seven national championships, it might be smart to discount past performances.

“It’s always a little extra special when you play a crosstown rival,” Vavic said. “We always get a little bit more excited about these games. Last year’s championship game was against UCLA too, so it does add a little bit to it.”

But if the Trojans are capable of recording their third win against the Bruins thus far in 2010, it’ll be largely because of sound play on the defensive end.

In the team’s last defeat, an Oct. 16 home loss to then-No. 2 California, the team surrendered a total of 12 goals in a game in which it trailed 8-2 at halftime.

An admittedly frustrated all-MPSF junior goalie Joel Dennerley took responsibility for the loss, but Vavic was quick to note that some of the team’s defensive issues were more of a collective problem.

“I’m not worried about Joel; he always delivers when it counts the most,” Vavic said. “You know, our defense did not help him, and in some of those games we played in and allowed so many goals it was not just Joel but our defense that had trouble.”

Provided the Trojans can continue their improved play as of late, those expected to show up at McDonald’s Swim Stadium could walk away more than pleased in what is expected to once again be a heavily attended contest.

“I hope our crowd is a good one,” Vavic said. “I hope to see a lot of Trojans there. But it’s a big game for UCLA as well. They’ll bring their fans. It’s going to be a great atmosphere.”