No. 1 USC preps for Princeton at home

If all goes as planned, the No. 1 USC men’s water polo team will play five games between now and Sunday night, beginning with a 7 p.m. match tonight against No. 14 Princeton at the McDonald’s Swim Stadium and ending with a championship match at the SoCal Tournament in Long Beach, Calif.

Threat · Sophomore driver Nikola Vavic, who led USC in scoring last season with 49 goals, looks to pace the USC offense against Princeton. - Ralf Cheung | Daily Trojan

Before talks of winning their ninth consecutive SoCal tournament gain momentum, however, the Trojans (6-0) must subdue the Tigers — the top-ranked water polo program on the East Coast.

“Princeton has only one loss, and is very well coached,” USC coach Jovan Vavic said. “Two years ago, they made it to the NCAA Final Four where we played them in the first round. I expect us to approach [this]game professionally.”

Princeton (10-1) has only suffered one loss on the season to Johns Hopkins, and has won two matches against top-20 programs, outscoring its opponents 126 goals to 59. The Tigers are led in scoring by an impressive pair of freshmen: center Kayj Shannon, a Los Angeles native, and attacker Drew Hoffenberg, who have notched 22 and 15 goals, respectively. Sophomore goalie Tyler Amina also sports a .590 save percentage.

But the feature event of the Trojans’ upcoming slate of games is, unequivocally, the SoCal tournament. For all of the awe-inducing statistics and figures USC can boast from the last few seasons, arguably one stands alone as the most impressive: eight consecutive SoCal Tournament championship titles.

The SoCal tournament, much like its NorCal tournament counterpart, invites the best water polo teams in the nation to Southern California to square off against one another. Having already won the NorCal Tournament a mere two weeks ago with a 10-8 victory over UCLA in the championship match, USC enters this weekend as the favorite.

“It’s still early in the season, and winning one tournament still means there are 20 games to play,” Vavic said. “If you’re looking to play in the NCAA tournament, you really can’t afford to have more than two or three losses. Each loss becomes huge so we know the importance of the tournament. If we’re successful, it’ll give us a two-game cushion on everyone else, which will set us up nicely for the rest of the season.”

The Trojans begin SoCal tournament play with an 8 a.m. match against Pomona Pitzer on Saturday. Barring an upset, USC will then proceed to play the winner of the UC Irvine and UC Davis opening round game. Another victory would advance USC to the semifinals where it would play either Stanford or Pepperdine. From there, the path gets progressively more difficult, as the Trojans would, in all likelihood, face California or UCLA — in a rematch of last year’s SoCal championship match — in the finals Sunday.

“Each team is a little bit different,” Vavic said. “UCLA is really balanced, they have each position covered. Cal is very dangerous offensively, and Stanford, although we beat them fairly easily the last game, I think they’re going to be much tougher down the road because they play great defense. Pacific may have the best two-meter man in the country.”

Teeming with talent and with no concerns about their ability to perform in pressure situations, perhaps the biggest obstacle facing the Trojans is how teams — most notably, Cal and Stanford — will adjust to playing them the second time around.

Last season, opponents defended sophomore two-meter Jeremy Davie and sophomore driver Nikola Vavic much more closely after the two freshmen proved themselves as prolific scorers at the NorCal tournament. Similarly, freshman driver Kostas Genidounias, an unknown presence before the NorCal tournament two weeks ago, who netted 12 goals over the span of four matches, could also be the recipient of more attention.

Even if teams do direct their attention to the freshman standout, the Trojans’ roster still has plenty of scorers. Junior driver Tobias Preuss and sophomore utility Mace Rapsey, who have tallied one goal and three goals on the young season, respectively, are both due for breakout games, according to Vavic.

“I think Tobias Preuss and Mace Rapsey are about to explode,” Vavic said. “Those guys are much better than what people realize.”