Regardless of which top-two men’s water polo team comes out with a victory this weekend, bragging rights will be short lived.
No. 2 UCLA visits No. 1 USC on Saturday afternoon to determine the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation regular season champion and the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament, which will take place the next weekend.
Barring any upsets of the two top-ranked teams at MPSF’s, the crosstown rivals will rematch for the conference’s sole automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, with a third showdown for the NCAA title remaining open as a possibility the following weekend.Standing alone as the only two teams remaining undefeated in MPSF play, the Bruins (24-2, 6-0 MPSF) and Trojans (23-0, 7-0) will feature on the Pac-12 Networks in what is, from a seeding perspective, their biggest game of the season. A hopeful UCLA squad will attempt to look past the hype surrounding Saturday’s game and focus on improvement as the stakes continue to be raised week by week.
“For us, we’re approaching it as a great opportunity for us to get better as a team,” Wright said. “There’s still a lot of things that we need to improve on over the next week, and what better chance to do it than against the best team in the country?”
In their last meeting, in the NorCal Tournament in mid-September, USC capitalized on UCLA’s defensive woes early and jumped out to a 5-0 lead near the end of the first half, eventually taking a 7-6 win. This time, the team will try to stay focused from the game’s opening sprint to avoid digging themselves into another early hole.
“It’s going to be a team effort,” senior goalkeeper Matt Rapacz said. “USC is very good and they will capitalize on our defensive mistakes. If one guy’s off, then it creates a ripple effect.”
A major challenge of UCLA’s on Saturday will be containing USC junior driver Nikola Vavic, who has scored 19 goals in his last four games. Vavic and sophomore driver Kostas Genidounias have combined for over a third of USC’s goals on the season.
“We’ve got to be really aware with (Vavic), and all their guys, really,” freshman utility Danny McClintick said. “There’s a lot of talent on their end, and they’re going to look to take advantage of our mistakes us if we’re not careful.”
For USC, a win Saturday means completing an undefeated regular season and for UCLA, who will finish up its season at home on Sunday against No. 9 UC Irvine, it means the opportunity to simultaneously gain momentum and play the role of spoiler in a hostile environment. “We need to make sure we take things possession by possession, because it’s going to be rowdy, as it always is,” Rapacz said.
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