UCLA and USC have met each other a lot in the pool – four times in 2015, five times in 2014 and twice in the past two national championship games.
But for the first time since 2005, the Crosstown Splashdown – the scheduled conference match between the two rivals – will be the first game between the teams all season.
Saturday morning, the No. 1 Bruins (24-0, 2-0 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) will face a surging No. 2 Trojan (19-1, 2-0 MPSF) squad with elite talent of all experience levels in a “hostile environment” at USC’s own Uytengsu Aquatics Center.
USC, like UCLA, lost two seniors last year, but welcomed back an All-American corps of juniors consisting of Matteo Morelli, Mihajlo Milicevic, Grant Stein and Lachlan and Blake Edwards.
In the cage, the Trojans have Rio Olympian McQuin Baron, whom Morelli called after a 17 save performance over No. 2 California the best goalie in the country.
The Trojans also have a trio of freshmen stars in Matt Maier, Marin Dasic and Thomas Dunstan who account for 59 of USC’s nation-leading 323 goals, which comes out to 16 goals a game.
“They have lefties, they have two great centers, they have Edwards, they have people who drive on the left side,” said coach Adam Wright. “We certainly can’t allow 16 goals, otherwise we’ll be in trouble. We have a hard task at hand because they do have so many weapons, but we also know that if we play defense the right way, we can limit them for sure.”
Against top-five and Big Four teams, UCLA has allowed less goals than any other team in the country, only 29 over five games. The next best on the list is USC, with just one goal more at 30 over the same number of matches.
Head-to-head however, the Bruins’ defense takes superiority. UCLA’s limited the Trojans to 63 goals over nine games since the beginning of the 2014 season, while scoring 81 times itself.
Part of that can be attributed to the saves difference – redshirt senior goalie Garrett Danner has recorded less than nine saves against USC only once over three years. In his Cutino Award winning season last year, he had 13, 11, 15 and 19 save performances.
“Defensively, we know that we have good guards, and Garrett’s a good goalie,” said redshirt junior attacker Max Irving. “If we’re able to put a large emphasis on playing team defense and we just do those things, then we’ll be able to hold them.”
Though the dynamics of the teams have shifted since last year’s national championship game – the last time these two teams played each other was over 11 months ago – both teams consistently have had a deep well of talent that allows for a system-oriented attacking approach.
“We for sure play two different styles. They’re playing a very play-oriented system and we’re playing a system where we read the situation more and make adjustments,” Wright said. “It’s a very hard and complicated system to defend.”
USC’s formula is also very disciplined, but between the scouting and amount of games the two teams have played against each other, UCLA’s ready, according to Irving.
“All the guys on our team, we’ve played these guys before,” Danner said. “They have a couple new pieces but so do we, we have guys that have stepped up in different roles, and it will be a good matchup … It’s always a fun game to play in.”
And though No. 1 UCLA hasn’t seen No. 2 USC this season, and while that may be unusual, Wright pointed something out as well.
“We’re both in the same position,” he said. “They haven’t played us either.”