Men’s water polo readies for MPSF tourney

The men’s water polo program seeks its 15th national title under head coach Jovan Vavic (bottom center) this year. Photo by Gabrielle Robinson | Daily Trojan

After suffering an overtime loss to UCLA to end the regular season last week, the fourth-ranked men’s water polo team looks to rebound with a strong performance in this weekend’s MPSF Tournament. The Trojans (22-3), the No. 4 seed, will face Penn State Behrend at 10 a.m. Friday before playing tournament host Stanford at 3 p.m.

“When you lose a tough match, everybody gets a little more focused and works harder and thinks about the next game,” head coach Jovan Vavic said. “So I think [UCLA] will be a good loss.”

After reaching the NCAA championship match for the 12th consecutive year in 2016, USC entered this season ranked No. 2 and rose to the top spot after going 21-1 through the opening two months of the campaign. Following late-season losses to Cal and UCLA, USC has fallen to No. 4 but has a chance to reclaim its dominance this weekend. With two wins on Friday, the Trojans would play in the MPSF final on Sunday for an automatic bid into the NCAA Championships.

But the memory of two losses in one week remains fresh in the team’s mind.

“We are up-and-down,” Vavic said. “I think we’ve played some great games, and during the game itself we have a tendency to be excellent and then lose our focus. I think we’ve won some big games in the fourth quarter, and we’ve lost some.”

Vavic said the team played well offensively at last weekend’s game in Westwood, but allowed the Bruins to create too many scoring opportunities. This weekend, Vavic is looking for a stronger defensive performance.

“I think this game is usually decided in the cage and in the 2-meter area,” Vavic said. “So really, the key performers need to be your goalie, your center and your center defender. Usually if those positions are playing well, you win games.”

USC looks to set the tone in its first tilt against Penn State Behrend (6-12). The key match, however, comes in the afternoon, when the team takes on top-ranked Stanford (18-3) in the Cardinal’s pool. The Trojans edged Stanford in two regular-season meetings between the two sides, scraping by 8-6 in early September before winning 11-10 two weeks later. But both matches were in the friendly confines of the Uytengsu Aquatics Center — the Cardinal will hope their home pool provides the edge this weekend.

As USC enters the postseason, the MPSF Tournament is only the team’s first test on the road to the team’s ultimate goal: another NCAA title. Vavic said the group is ready to perform.

“We’re excited,” Vavic said. “It’s been a season of some great thrill and some frustration, and we’re looking forward to a great tournament.”