For a program so accustomed to winning, it’s considerably painful when a 22-game winning streak lasting nearly 12 months is snapped. It’s even more painful when it comes by way of back-to-back losses.
The No. 1 USC men’s water polo team is now faced with this reality.
The Trojans (9-2, 1-0) suffered their first loss since Oct. 16, 2010, Sunday to No. 4 Stanford by a score of 6-4 in the semifinals of the SoCal tournament in Long Beach, Calif. USC fell again to No. 2 UCLA hours later by a score of 7-6 in the tournament’s third-place game.
This marked the first time since 2002 that the Trojans will not carry the title of “SoCal tournament champions” for the remainder of the season, as the Cardinal went on to win the two-day event.
Faced with its first loss of the season, the Trojans struggled to bounce back against the Bruins in the third-place game.
Answering to UCLA’s initial goal, USC notched two of its own from sophomore two-meter Jeremy Davie and senior Peter Kurzeka. Junior driver Tobias Preuss and sophomore utility Mace Rapsey also notched two goals in the first period, giving the Trojans a 4-2 lead.
But with only one goal in the second period from Rapsey, once again, USC lost some of its momentum, allowing UCLA to score two more goals, leaving the score 5-4 at the half.
“In the game against UCLA, Mace Rapsey was our best player and Toby [Preuss] had a good show, too,” USC coach Jovan Vavic said. “Mace’s performance was nice to see because he was a little sick and did not play as many minutes up north [in the NorCal tournament]. In this tournament he helped out offensively and defensively.”
Second half scoring issues, seen in the semifinal game as well, continued to plague the Trojans as they vied to defeat the Bruins, as things began to slip out of USC’s grasp at the onset of the third period.
“Those two games [Stanford and UCLA] were unusual for us because usually we are an excellent second half team,” Vavic said. “The reason we won so many games in the past is because we wore people down in the second half.”
Sophomore driver Nikola Vavic attempted to even the score for the Trojans after UCLA scored for the first time in the third, but the Bruins finished off the period with another goal, leaving the score 6-6 at the start of the fourth.
The Trojans lost nearly all steam in the fourth period, when a UCLA conversion on an early 6-on-5 advantage led to its narrow one-goal lead.
Unable to tie the game and force overtime, the Trojans failed to finish off a 6-on-5 of their own and left the Bruins victorious.
“I think defense was good but if you have a poor extra man performance we usually don’t win,” Jovan Vavic said. “The main reason was our 6-on-5; we have a way better offensive team than just 10 goals in two games. The NorCal tournament we finished out shots and this tournament we didn’t.”
In a rematch of the NorCal tournament semifinals, USC first faced the Cardinal on Sunday. Though the Trojans bested Stanford 12-5 earlier this season, the Cardinal redeemed itself with a 6-4 victory.
USC came through with three goals in the first half, two from freshman driver Kostas Genidounias and one from Vavic. But the team only managed to notch one goal in the second half from senior driver Peter Kurzeka, as the Trojans were outscored 4-1 in the final two periods.
“Defensively we made some mistakes we have made in the past,” Dennerley said. “I think that’s an area we still need to keep improving upon. We had a good offensive weekend up at NorCal and this weekend our timing of passes just wasn’t there and that reflected in the scores.”
Initially, though, USC looked as if it would extend its tournament streak to nine years, following a 21-1 victory over No. 20 Pomona-Pitzer and an 11-5 win over No. 7 UC Irvine on Saturday. That morning against Pomona-Pitzer, the Trojans put on an offensive display, racking up 15 consecutive goals. USC continued its surge later that afternoon, as it had eight different players score against the Anteaters.
“Our defense in general was pretty good, especially 5-on-6 defense. That was excellent,” Jovan Vavic said. “We stopped every extra man they had except for one time in the last two games. On our extra man, we went 1-4-13 and that was really a problem. We scored one goal out of 13 power plays.”
No matter how impressive its offensive numbers were on day one, however, the pair of losses Sunday overshadows USC’s early-season momentum.
“We underachieved this weekend,” senior goalie Joel Dennerley said. “We happened to secure some victories, but we had some tough losses on Sunday and we need to reassess things and bounce back quickly.”
USC will return home for a series of three games at McDonald’s Swim Stadium, hosting Long Beach State on Thursday at 5 p.m. followed by an exhibition match against Long Beach City College.