For the first time this season, the UC Santa Barbara men’s water polo team is in need of a bounce-back performance. It’s unlikely their next opponent will make it easy on them.
The No. 4 Gauchos will host No. 5 USC on Sunday and will enter the match on a two-game losing streak. Those two losses came at the hands of first UCLA and then the University of the Pacific in the team’s final games of last weekend’s SoCal Invitational.
As a result, the 15-2 Gauchos find themselves in unfamiliar territory as they prepare to take on a familiar opponent.
UCSB defeated USC a little over two weeks ago at the Inland Empire Classic, a then-surprising upset that snapped a 29-year losing streak against the Trojans. Those Trojans, then, will jump into Campus Pool on Saturday with revenge and a return to the historical order in mind.
USC, now 7-2, has rebounded from that earlier loss. The Trojans are 5-1 since then, with wins over No. 6 Cal, No. 8 Long Beach State and No. 18 Princeton. The one blemish came at the hands of Pacific in a 16-15 shootout to open up last weekend’s SoCal Invitational.
Junior driver Jacob Mercep leads the Trojans with 23 goals so far this year, while senior driver Marin Dasic isn’t far behind with 20. Both players have scored multiple times in seven games this season, but only Dasic was able to pull that off against the Gauchos the first time around with two goals in the match.
Limiting those two engines of attack again on Sunday will be crucial to a UCSB victory. The Gauchos forced other players to hurt them, and none proved capable of dealing a killing blow.
One of those other players was sophomore driver Hannes Daube, who took eight shots in the first matchup, converting only once. Daube is USC’s third-leading scorer and has scored in seven different games, so limiting his opportunities will be another Gaucho priority.
“We know we need to stop Daube and Mercep,” UCSB Head Coach Wolf Wigo said.
UCSB will also look to replicate their success against USC’s goalkeepers, particularly sophomore Nic Porter. Porter, who boasts 10.29 saves and 9.14 goals allowed per game, was in goal for the first matchup and unable to stop much of what the Gauchos threw at him with just four saves against the 13 goals.
The Trojans have largely alternated goalies this season, however, so UCSB may be facing off against junior Vaios Vlahotasios in the cage instead of Porter. Vlahotasios has been less successful statistically with 8.6 saves and 9.2 goals allowed per game and was the main recipient of the Pacific onslaught last season.
Whichever Trojan is in goal will be doing his best to prevent a repeat performance by junior attacker Cole Brosnan. Brosnan buried USC with five goals the first time around, including two in the third quarter to help push the Gauchos out to a decisive lead.
“I am sure they will focus a little more on Cole this time,” Wigo said. “But that will just open up our other shooters so we don’t have any problem with that.”
Brosnan has kept up the scoring since the first USC game. The junior scored eight times during the SoCal Invitational, with one goal in each game.
“Cole has a great shot,” Wigo said. “And if you do not mark him tight, he is deadly.”
The Gauchos will have a home crowd at their backs on Sunday, something they didn’t have in La Verne the first time they faced the Trojans. That should provide something of a boost to UCSB, which is 2-0 in Campus Pool so far this season.
“It will be a home game with a huge crowd,” Wigo said. “ … [We need to] just play relaxed and confident. Let the crowd do what they do and don’t get distracted.”
This UCSB team has never had to overcome defeat and keep moving forward, so Sunday represents a unique challenge. That both losses came by razor-thin margins to elite teams can provide some solace, and Coach Wigo is confident in his team’s ability to press on:
“I think we played great and lost in the final minute by one goal against top teams … It has not really affected us. We will continue to stay with our game plan and hopefully execute that.”
On Sunday, the Gauchos will get the chance to prove their coach right.