The USC-UCLA rivalry has never been this heated.
The Bruins’ and Trojans’ men’s water polo teams — tied for No. 1 atop the NCAA top-20 poll — face off today for a 7 p.m. matchup at the Spieker Aquatics Center in Westwood. The outcome of the game is not only a matter of pride but will determine who will head into the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament as the top seed.
“It’s a good matchup to have two number one’s going at it here in Southern California,” senior driver Peter Kurzeka said. “It should be a battle and I think there is gonna be a good crowd and it’s gonna be a good atmosphere for the sport of water polo in general.”
The Trojans (19-2, 7-0) go into the game against the Bruins (19-3, 5-1), the last of the regular season, as the only undefeated team in MPSF play.
The Trojans are coming off a narrow victory against No. 7 Pacific on Nov. 13. The top-ranked USC team fought hard for its 11-10 win, with the game going into overtime. Junior driver Tobias Preuss helped carry the team to a victory with his performance in the first overtime period.
“Someone always steps up in close games and for us [against Pacific] it was Toby [Preuss],” Kurzeka said. “In overtime he scored two huge goals and then we were able to lock it down on defense — and that’s what we’ve been able to do, that’s how we won last year’s final. We kind of wear teams down and we know that if we get into overtimes we’re usually be the team that’s in better shape that’s able to keep our cool a little bit more and focus.”
In terms of players that have proven themselves to be essential this season for the Trojans, no one stands out, virtually all of USC’s offense has proven its worth this season.
While Kurzeka and sophomore driver Nikola Vavic lead the team with 33 and 28 goals this season, respectively, it is not unusual to see many different Trojan players score for USC in a single game. In USC’s 21 games this season, only its game against Stanford on Oct. 2 saw less than five different players score.
“With our team you never know who is gonna turn up for the day and be the star,” senior goalie Joel Dennerley said. “In the past different guys have been our go to players, whether it is Toby [Preuss], Kostas [Genidounias], Peter [Kurzeka], Nikola [Vavic]. Across the board we are a dangerous team so that is the key to our success. This Friday no doubt somebody will step up.”
Kurzeka was quick to note the improvements the team has made since September.
“Our offense is a lot better than the beginning of the season, and I think our defense overall is a lot better,” Kurzeka said. “We have some games where we give up a little more goals than we need, but we are also playing on a tough schedule right now in the MPSF and teams have a whole week to prepare for us so they are attacking our defense well.”
The last five games the Trojans have played have been wins, but not up to their own standards in terms of goals against. They have not given up less than five goals since the end of October.
“The past few games we haven’t met our expectation of four goals or less so we will look to improve on that,” Dennerley said.
This season the Trojans’ opponents have been averaging 5.2 shots against per game. UCLA has been averaging 6.32 goals against.
Regardless of the Trojans’ defensive goals not being met, however, Friday’s game will truly be a clash of water polo titans.
USC is riding on a 10-game winning streak. UCLA boasts a nine-game streak of its own. The Trojans are averaging 12.05 goals per game this season, but the Bruins have a slight upper hand with their average of 12.36. Both teams boast powerful offensive players, so anticipation for an action-packed game is high.
Even with all these factors in play, USC will go into the game with only one thing on its mind, however: a victory.
“I feel pretty confident, we’ve had a good few weeks of training and I think we’re pretty energized,” Kurzeka said. “We know what’s at stake to finish conference play undefeated and to get a big win at their pool is going to be huge.”