On the day they received championship rings from 2011, the Trojans kept rolling on their quest for a fifth consecutive national title.
In front of a lively home crowd on Saturday, the No. 1 USC men’s water polo team (21-0, 6-0) used a dominant first half to defeat Mountain Pacific Sports Federation foe No. 5 UC Santa Barbara (15-7, 1-4) 12-7.
Junior driver Nikola Vavic led the Trojan scoring effort with a hat trick, and moved into a tie for ninth on USC’s all-time scoring list with his 150th career goal early in the final period. He needs one more goal to tie for eighth and three more goals to move into sole possession of seventh on the all-time list. Junior two-meter Jeremy Davie and sophomore driver Kostas Genidounias also added to the Trojan scoring effort with two goals apiece.
USC recovered from some early miscommunications to put up 12 goals. A big reason behind the scoring effort was a heavy emphasis on finding teammates in the right position.
“Our passes were crisp,” senior driver Stephen Siri said. “I think our large focus was to put away easy opportunities that come from good passing and setups, and we did that today.”
The Trojans limited the Gauchos to their lowest first-half scoring output all year while taking a 4-1 lead.
“We were pretty physical on defense and pushed [USCB] away from the cage,” USC coach Jovan Vavic said. “We did a good job in recognizing when a two-meter man established position so we were able to come back and really force them into some poor shots.”
Nikola Vavic and Genidounias paced the Trojans with two goals each in the first half, but the unquestioned star of the first half was junior goalkeeper James Clark.
Playing in his first season at USC after making the Australian Olympic squad, Clark had 10 saves in the first half on Saturday and 14 for the match.
“He works so hard in practice and is always focused,” junior two-meter and fellow Australian Jeremy Davie said. “When’s he’s on his day, it’s impossible to score on the guy.”
“This was one of his best games in the cage for us,” Jovan Vavic added. “[UC] Santa Barbara got a little nervous after he blocked all those shots, and it affected their attack.”
After a low-scoring first half, the third period was a wild one. The Trojans scored two quick goals to open the half, the first on a well-placed lob pass from Nikola Vavic to junior utility Mace Rapsey, taking a 6-1 lead. The Gauchos quickly responded, scoring two goals in two minutes to cut the deficit back to three goals at 6-3.
On USC’s next possession, senior driver Tobias Preuss hit Davie with an arcing lob pass, and Davie threw the ball into the net as the shot clock expired. A goal by Preuss with under a minute left in the third period extended the lead to 8-3, and the Gauchos never trailed by less than four goals for the rest of the match.
“When we play with energy, teams can’t keep up with us,” Davie said. “We can rotate six men in at a time a lot because we have the depth to do that, and we can outswim other teams.”
The game was physical throughout, but USC’s quickness and depth ended up winning out over the Gauchos’ advantage in size.
“As we work teams through the counter in the second half, that’s where we can wear some teams down,” Siri added.
The Trojans host Concordia then travel to take on Pepperdine next weekend, before coming back in two weekends to host a match against UCLA that will likely determine the top seed for the MPSF tournament.