Women’s water polo battles UCLA for MSPF seed

With the MPSF regular-season title and conference tournament seeds on the line during the final week of the regular season, the No. 2 USC women’s water polo team (26-1 overall, 4-1 MPSF) will look to have a big showing this weekend when they take on crosstown rival and No. 1 UCLA (19-1, 5-0) in Westwood on Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Spieker Aquatics Center.

With USC, UCLA and Stanford all jockeying for position to claim the top seed heading into next week’s MPSF tournament, each game leading up to the event will be crucial and near must-wins for the Trojans. However, senior captain Avery Peterson and her teammates are no strangers to the high stakes and pressure that accumulate this time of the year.

“We’ve all been really excited for these kinds of matches,” Peterson said. “The month of April has all of the big games that we like to play in before we head into the MPSF and NCAA tournaments, so there’s kind of a different feel to it now. We’re excited, but we also know we need to be extra focused and even more prepared than before.”

The preparation and focus needed to sustain a high level of play in the latter half of the season is not lost on senior driver Ioanna Haralabidis.

“It’s going to be about taking things one game at a time,” Haralabidis said. “We’re preparing ourselves for those big tournaments at the end of the season, yes, but before all of that, we can’t overlook the game in front of us.”

A tough loss by four goals against Stanford earlier this month has put USC in somewhat of a tricky position to nab the top seed in the MPSF Tournament, as a few scenarios would have to play out in the Trojans’ favor for that to happen. If USC can defeat UCLA by at least eight goals on Saturday, or win against UCLA (regardless of the score) and have Stanford — which is tied with USC for No. 2 — lose to No. 15 San Jose State, then the Trojans will steal the first seed. A win by seven goals or less against UCLA would give the Trojans the second seed, while a loss puts USC in third.

However, USC is the only team to have beaten UCLA this season — a 10-9 decision in the semifinals of the Barbara Kalbus Invitational in Irvine back in late February. In that game, the Trojans erased an early deficit thanks to two goals each from senior driver Stephania Haralabidis, junior utility Hayley McKelvey, and freshman utility Maud Megens. Sophomore goalkeeper Amanda Longan also recorded 12 saves in that win, pushing USC into the finals of the non-conference tournament.

In fact, USC has won the last four meetings against UCLA, with their last loss coming in the 2015 MPSF Tournament semifinals. The Bruins are riding a nine-game win streak into Saturday’s matchup, though, having just upset top-ranked Stanford in Palo Alto last weekend. UCLA then leapfrogged Stanford and USC in the rankings to stand as the No. 1 team in the nation and remain the only unbeaten team in the MPSF.

Though the stakes are now raised, Haralabidis and the Trojans will be ready for a battle come Saturday.

“I think we are prepared,” Haralabidis said. “What [head coach Jovan Vavic] tells us all the time is true: Preparation gives us confidence before the game, so we just need to study our opponents, get back to the basics and play our team game.”

The big crosstown splashdown between the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 teams is set for 1 p.m. at the Spieker Aquatics Center and will be broadcast live on Pac-12 Los Angeles. Furthermore, the upcoming 2017 MPSF Women’s Water Polo Championship Tournament will also be held in Westwood on April 28-30.