For a team that prides itself on matching its offensive firepower with its defensive prowess, Saturday’s nonconference matchup with No. 12 Loyola Marymount at McDonald’s Swim Stadium exemplified the effort the No. 4 USC men’s water polo team will need to reclaim its previous position atop the water polo food chain.
The Trojans (11-2, 2-0) topped LMU 13-3, receiving scoring contributions from 10 different players, including a hat trick from freshman driver Kostas Genidounias and two goals from senior driver Peter Kurzeka.
But the prolific scoring output overshadowed what was arguably the most impressive element of the Trojans’ well-rounded performance: their impenetrable defense.
“Whenever you lose, you have a tendency to re-evaluate everything,” USC coach Jovan Vavic said. “I think the biggest thing is that, in the two games we lost, we gave up 11 natural [even-strength] goals. Our philosophy is not to give up any natural goals. That was a problem in the SoCal tournament.”
In Saturday’s game, all three goals USC relinquished were scored on exclusion penalties. In the first quarter USC’s defense forced turnovers on six of LMU’s nine possessions.
At one point in the third quarter, LMU’s offense could not muster a single shot on USC senior goalie Joel Dennerley for eight consecutive possessions. Throughout the match, Trojan defenders managed to extend their arms in shooting lanes, thus amassing an embarrassment of field blocks.
“We were able to put in a couple of goals early,” Kurzeka said. “We came out strong and did a nice job with the counterattack. It was great defensive effort — a lot like our game on Thursday — and that’s what we need coming off a tough stretch like we did.”
Though USC jumped out to an early lead and notched 13 goals, Vavic and Kurzeka are still dissatisfied with the offense as of late, insisting USC has failed to bear down and capitalize on some of its easier scoring chances. The Trojans know such opportunities will be at a premium when they face perennial powerhouses such as Stanford, California and UCLA.
“We missed probably five wide-open shots today, where we hit the post, shot it wide or shot it right at the goalie,” Vavic said. “We were up 2-0 after the first quarter with a lot of missed opportunities, and then they scored to open up the second quarter. So now, instead of being up 4-0 or 5-0, you’re in a brawl.”
Though the Lions were within striking distance of the Trojans, USC’s offense figured to be too much. Sophomore two-meter Connor Virjee, who scored 22 goals last season as a true freshman, is beginning to heat up as, for the second consecutive game, he rifled an awe-inducing, long-distance shot for his third goal of the season. Redshirt freshman two-meter A.J. MacDonell tallied the final goal of the game for his fourth of the season.
“At the beginning, usually we try to give our younger players a lot of playing time,” Vavic said. “Then, some of the guys earn more playing time and other guys lose it. This year a lot of the younger guys are showing that they can play. [Redshirt freshman two-meter] Jack Plaga, obviously [Genidounias] is doing a good job, [freshman driver] Marc Vonderweidt. Some players who didn’t play much last year are really showing us their ability.”
USC heads to Berkeley, Calif., to face No. 2 California Saturday.