The conditioning drill resembled a prayer ritual.
The UCLA men’s water polo team formed a circle in the pool, arms up, treading water. A handful of players had medicine balls, and every 10 seconds, the balls were silently passed clockwise.
All very apt for a team trying to exorcise the demons of USC games past.
“Obviously this is something we’ve had starred on our schedule,” redshirt junior Cullen Hennessy said. “Hopefully we get some revenge on these guys.”
Since the last meeting between USC and UCLA it’s been hard to not look forward to Saturday’s Mountain Pacific Sports Federation matchup at McDonald’s Swim Stadium, the third meeting between the two teams this year.
The first came on Sept. 19 at the NorCal Tournament, an 11-10 USC win. The Trojans followed that up with a 9-8 win Oct. 3 at the SoCal Tournament, held at Spieker Aquatics Center.
The memories of two-straight one-goal losses ““ three, if you count the 2009 NCAA championship game ““ are hard to erase, which is why the No. 3 Bruins (15-3, 4-1 MPSF) are set on eliminating the mistakes that have beset them against the No. 2 Trojans (18-2, 3-2).
It will start on defense. UCLA has been exposed in both meetings this year, and the scoreboard has shown it. A deficit forces both the offensive and defensive tactics to change and leaves the Bruins more susceptible to panic.
“If we go down 1-0, it’s not the end of the world,” coach Adam Wright said. “But it’s important we get off to a good start because we’ve spotted them goals the last two times.”
The importance of securing a lead is not lost on the last line of defense, James Hartshorne. The freshman goalkeeper made his third career start in the SoCal Tournament matchup and had to come up with saves late to keep his team in it, but he would like to avoid that situation this time.
“I gain confidence when we’re up by a few goals,” he said. “I feel better making blocks and being aggressive coming out (of the goal).”
There has also been the matter of Hartshorne’s counterpart: Joel Dennerley. UCLA has been largely smothered by USC’s star junior, who has 27 saves in the two games, including an impressive pair of penalty shot saves in the last meeting.
“Sometimes we looked hesitant,” Wright said of going up against Dennerley. “You can’t be hesitant. You go with confidence. The worst you can do is miss.”
Sophomore attacker Josh Samuels, UCLA’s fourth-leading scorer with 19 goals on the year, said he’s been poring over film to exploit Dennerley’s weaknesses.
“I’ve got some shots in my head,” Samuels said.
As is always the case in the crosstown rivalry, the pressure will be there for the Bruins. A loss would leave them with an 0-4 combined against the top two teams in the country: USC and No. 1 California. That won’t cut it when the time comes for the selection of the one at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament, which is why UCLA is ready to overcome the one-goal hurdle of the past.
“We all believe that we’re more than capable of beating this team,” Hennessy said. “I just hope we can all go out there and execute and come out fired up.”