Vavic, Trojans face early Bay Area test

The USC men’s water polo team will look to defend its national title at the annual NorCal tournament.

After dominating its first four lower-division opponents by a combined score of 78-14, USC (4-0) will face its first major challenge of the season at Stanford. The 16-team, single elimination tournament is set up so USC will likely play three of its fellow Mountain Pacific Sports Federation opponents over the weekend.

The MPSF is historically one of the best conferences in the country. It’s top nine teams are also the top nine in the Collegiate Water Polo Assocation rankings, and every team in the conference is undefeated heading into the weekend.

The games in the tournament don’t count in the conference standings, but the challenge of facing their conference rivals for the first time in 2012 is not lost on the Trojans.

“It’s good to see what the rest of the competition is like,” redshirt junior driver Stephen Siri said. “[It’s] a good test to see how much we’ve learned and improved over the summer.”

While double headers on the schedule are not rare, the tournament still poses the difficult task of playing four games in two days.

USC coach Jovan Vavic mentioned that the players are being given more rest than usual this week in practice in order to conserve energy.

“We’re going to play them all,” Vavic said when asked if he might alter the Trojans’ strategy for the tournament opener. “But they’re going to play less minutes.”

The Trojans open against Pomona-Pitzer at 8 a.m. on Saturday, a team they beat 20-3 in their second game this year.

If the Trojans can defeat the winner of the Long Beach State-Pepperdine game, a matchup against Stanford likely awaits. The Trojans are the top seed in the tournament, while the Cardinal is seeded fourth.

The Trojans defeated Stanford in three of their four matchups in 2011, but once again the Cardinal provide a challenge the Trojans rarely encounter.

“They’re a big team,” Vavic said. “They have some physical, tall and big players who can create mismatches for us.”

Senior driver Michael Rosenthal agreed with Vavic. “They’re always a team that makes us have to consider our matchups” Rosenthal said. “You go in and you prepare all week for likely opponents, but what you’re really doing is just fine-tuning your defense and offense to make sure everything focuses nicely.”

Though it might be difficult when the upcoming opponents are still unknown, the reason for team’s potential success will be the small adjustments made in practice.

“We do all the work we can before, and then just see where we’re at once we get up there,” Siri said.

As for the biggest challengers in the way of the Trojans’ third consecutive NorCal tournament title, Vavic and his players mentioned conference foes UCLA and Cal in addition to Stanford.

Two of the Trojans’ three losses last season came at the hands of the Bruins, including a 9-10 sudden-death defeat in the MPSF Tourney championship match. The Trojans avenged that loss with a 7-4 victory over the Bruins in the National Championship, but UCLA looks to have little drop-off, if any, from last season.

UCLA scoring duo Josh Samuels and Griffin White combined for 94 goals last season, while MPSF tourney Most Outstanding Player Matt Rapacz returns in goal. The Bruins are 8-0 after the UCLA and Princeton Invitationals, winning their matches by an average of more than 13 goals per game.

The Golden Bears also went 5-0 at the Princeton Invitational last weekend. Cal returns key players in goalie Justin Parsons and top scorer Collin Smith, who has 19 goals so far in the nonconference slate.

The Trojans swept Cal last season after a late goal gave the Trojans a 9-8, sudden-death victory in Berkeley.

UCLA is currently ranked second in the CWPA Polls behind USC, while the Golden Bears come in third.