The cream always rises, and the UCSB men’s water polo team is trying to join the cream of the crop in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.
The Gauchos take their #4 ranking and 16-5 overall (2-0 MPSF) record on the road again this weekend, this time heading south to take on #2 USC on Saturday and Loyola Marymount on Sunday.
Santa Barbara defeated Pacific 8-3 last Saturday and, in double overtime on Sunday, Berkeley 7-6, thanks to a goal from junior driver Ramiro Saldain. This puts the Gauchos in second place in the conference with three teams tied with 2-0 MPSF records. There are no easy wins in the MPSF, especially when dealing with perennial power USC.
“USC is a whole other batch of different issues for any team to address,” UCSB Head Coach Joe O’Brien said. “They’re really good; they don’t have any weaknesses. They play with really good intensity.”
The Trojans are led by Juraj Zatovic and Thomas Hale, who have 28 and 26 goals, respectively. USC has outscored its opponents this year 182-85, with the Gauchos accounting for some of those goals. The Trojans have a seven-game winning streak coming into this weekend and have defeated Santa Barbara in both match-ups this season, outscoring SB 23-12.
“Last time we played them, we played better than the first time [this season] but still not well enough to make the game competitive in the fourth period,” O’Brien said. “Our goal is going to be to try to keep the score down and have a chance to win the game in the final period.”
Helping to keep the score down will be junior goalkeeper Jon Bonafede, who was awarded the MPSF/Mikasa Player of the Week award for his performance against Berkeley, in which he recorded a season-high 18 saves. Bonafede leads the MPSF with 160 saves in 16 games, with USC sophomore goalie Don Ricci in second place with 76 saves in eight games.
“It’s a neat recognition for Jon and for the team. You can’t have an MPSF Player of the Week without winning your games on the weekend,” O’Brien said. “We’d like to have an MPSF Player of the Week at the end of the season because that would mean that we won the MPSF Tournament.”
Power plays, the period in which one team has a man down and gives the other a better chance of scoring, came up huge in the Cal game as the Bears scored five of their six goals on power plays.
“We just worked on power play defense, identifying where the ejected person is and covering for it really quickly and getting into defense,” O’Brien said. “Defensively, we just need to be a little quicker moving. There were times in the Cal game when we got a little bit slow and they got some good looks at the goal.”
The Gauchos will play in the friendly confines of Campus Pool next weekend, hosting MPSF opponents #9 Long Beach State on Oct. 30 and #2 Stanford on Halloween.