When it comes to NCAA title hopes and top-ranked opponents, the best rivalry showdown this weekend is being played in the pool, not on the gridiron. Saturday’s matchup between the No. 1 USC men’s water polo team (23-0, 7-0) and No. 2 UCLA (24-2, 6-0) men’s water polo squads is not only a rematch of 2011’s national title game, but could very well be a national championship preview for 2012.
Both squads will continue their seasons at the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation championships next week, but there is plenty at stake in a 4:30 p.m. match being televised on the Pac-12 Network.
Both squads are undefeated in conference play, which means the winner on Saturday will win the MPSF regular season title and earn the top seed for next weekend’s conference championship. Only the winner of the MPSF tournament is guaranteed a spot in the NCAA championships, making Saturday’s match crucial for gaining a leg up in capturing the conference’s automatic bid. And don’t forget about pride.
“It’s why I play water polo,” senior two-meter Matt Burton said about the cross-town rivalry. “The Bruins always bring it, and we’re willing to do whatever we can in order to get that win. It’s pure competition at its best.”
Double-digit winning streaks are also on the line: The Trojans are on a 25-game surge dating back to last season, and the Bruins have reeled off 10 in a row.
The Trojans defeated the Bruins 7-6 in an early-season matchup, but the seven goals mark USC’s lowest scoring output all season.
“We’re going to have to choose our shots a lot better,” sophomore driver Zach Lucas said. “We need to set our teammates up, look for the cross pass, read their defense correctly, and take the shots they’re giving us.”
Junior driver Nikola Vavic leads the Trojans with 72 goals, including nine in a 19-4 win over Concordia last weekend and four in the Trojans’ previous defeat of the Bruins. Sophomore driver Kostas Genidounias is the other half of the Trojans’ dynamic scoring duo with 54 goals of his own.
A Trojan victory will guarantee the fourth undefeated regular season for USC since the MPSF’s inception, will all but ensure a bid to the NCAA Championships.
“If we win this game, we’re in,” USC coach Jovan Vavic said about USC’s chances for an at-large bid in case they lose in the MPSF Championships. UCLA is the only other squad nationally besides USC with less than five losses on the season.
The end goal for the squad is an unprecedented fifth-straight national title, but for now all the focus is on a Bruin squad that looks to be peaking at the right time.
UCLA utility Josh Samuels has 52 goals on the season to lead a balanced Bruins’ attack that has eight players with more than 20 goals.
“They’re a great passing team, and they’re very patient,” Burton said. “We throw every defense in the book at them, but they’re very good at reading drops, reading different zones and have a lot of guys who make really good decisions on offense.”
On the other side of the pool, UCLA goalie Matt Rapacz is second only to the Trojans’ tandem in average goals allowed, and had a season-high 150 saves in the two teams’ previous matchup.
Vavic, however, insists he is not worried.
“No matter how talented, every goalie out there is going to get beat with a good shot,” he said.
The teams are more than familiar with each other, and every Trojan knows the Bruins will be out for revenge after USC’s 7-4 victory over their Westwood rivals in the 2011 national title match.
“I would hate us,” Burton said. “I would be absolutely sick and tired of us. They want nothing more than to come into our house and absolutely obliterate us.”
The USC-UCLA connections are noticeable, both from the coaches’ and the players’ standpoints. UCLA assistant coach Daniel Leyson was an All-American in 1992 at USC under Vavic, and was an assistant coach with the Trojans from 2000 to 2002.
More than half of each team’s roster is from Southern California, and most played with or against each other on club teams throughout high school. Relations are friendly most of the year, but everything changes when the two sides face off.
“In the water, we don’t talk at all,” Lucas said. “It’s strictly business.”