Based on USC’s track record, Thursday’s nonconference matchup with No. 10 Pepperdine should have been as smooth as the coastal breeze.
In late September, the Trojans traveled to Malibu, Calif., for a similar contest with the Waves, where they netted a total of 13 goals en route to their 11th consecutive win of the season.
But for the No. 2 USC men’s water polo team (21-2, 4-2), Thursday’s home game with Pepperdine proved all too challenging, as the Trojans avoided a close scare with a narrow 7-6 win, much to the chagrin of both coaches and players.
“It’s good to get the win, but it is disappointing, for we were hoping to come out and play a lot better,” said junior goalie Joel Dennerley. “We have high expectations for ourselves.”
USC coach Jovan Vavic was quick to express similar displeasure as well.
“I’m not sure we were ever really focused on this game,” Vavic said. “This is a young team, and sometimes coming off a big win, they don’t know how to get themselves ready for each game.”
But at least in the early goings, it appeared as if Vavic’s bunch was prepared and poised for yet another double-digit scoring outburst.
In the first frame, USC scored a total of four goals in a span of five minutes on behalf of junior two-meter Matt Burton, junior driver Peter Kurzeka, redshirt sophomore driver Forest Monroe and sophomore utility Mace Rapsey. Rapsey’s goal was particularly impressive, coming with just one second remaining in the period, and breaking the 3-3 stalemate.
“We had opportunities, particularly 6-on-5 opportunities,” Vavic said.
But despite those opportunities, USC failed to build on its initial lead, allowing a sub-.500 Pepperdine squad to remain within striking distance.
For nearly seven minutes in the second quarter, USC was scoreless before a pair of last-minute goals from redshirt freshmen driver Stephen Siri and freshman two-meter Jeremy Davie, which ballooned USC’s lead to three.
In the second half, however, things took a turn for the worse, as the Trojans were outscored 3-1 and sloppy play prevented the USC from spearheading a late run.
“Pepperdine played us tough, but we really took some shots that were ill-advised,” Vavic said. “We created opportunities, we drew ejections and then we just took bad shots.”
Although a third-quarter goal from Kurzeka marked the team’s lone second half score, Vavic made a point to note some positives, as well.
“The most important thing is that we won a game,” Vavic said. “We’re 21-2, and we had a hard week of training too. I’m not concerned. We’re going to come back, rebound and have a big week.”
To win, however, the Trojans were forced to rely on their anchor, Dennerley, and a defense that was able to preserve the team’s narrow lead.
“In the last two games, we’ve given up five and six goals, which is not bad,” Vavic said. “Overall, our execution could have been better, but still, defensively, we did a good job. We stopped them and we won a game. It’s not always going to be pretty.”
Dennerley was quick to echo similar sentiments, noting the team’s strong play in various 5-on-6 defensive situations.
“We had to come up with some big stops,” Dennerley said. “We stopped them on a number of occasions on 5-on-6s, which is always good to do when you’re a man down.”
Despite the win, Dennerley and company won’t be afforded the opportunity to relax any time soon as a Saturday Mountain Pacific Sports Federation contest against Long Beach State awaits.
“I think we need to improve our communication and awareness in both defense and attack,” Dennerley said. “If we do that and go into the game with a better focus, we’ll prevail.”
Despite two easy wins against the 49ers, Vavic stressed the importance of staying focused.
“We need to have a good game against Long Beach,” Vavic said. “That’s going to be a big game because, for them, it’s the most important game of the year.”