The #9 UCSB men’s water polo team will have its first real test of the season to open up conference play – and it’s a challenging one – as it heads to face defending national champion, #1 USC this weekend.

The Gauchos (12-4 overall, 0-0 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) return to action after defeating #11 Irvine and #13 Pepperdine last weekend in final preparation for their opening conference match. In addition to Friday’s clash with the Trojans, which marks its first official conference match, UCSB will also face Davis and play another match against Pepperdine at the Long Beach Mini Tournament on Saturday.

But first the Gauchos have to face the Trojans (9-0, 1-0 MPSF), who are currently riding a 28-game winning streak that dates back to last season, and are sitting atop both the conference standings and the national rankings. USC has also enjoyed long-term success over the Gauchos: The last time UCSB beat the Trojans was in 1990. A win for UCSB would be a sure upset, but the Gauchos are content with their underdog role going into the game.

“Even though they’re #1, we’re definitely going into this game to win,” UCSB Head Coach Wolf Wigo said. “We aren’t intimidated by them.”

The key to the game for the Gauchos will be in their offensive strategy, as USC features one of the strongest defenses in the nation. Currently, the Trojans are best in the nation in goals allowed, letting just 4.67 per game slip through. The Gauchos will not only have to stay aggressive offensively, but limit mistakes and be tenacious on defense.

“We want to play a controlled game and slow them down in the front court,” Wigo said. “Stopping their counterattack is definitely the most important thing, though; they are a very strong team in that area.”

After the showdown with USC, the Gauchos will travel to Long Beach, where they will participate in the LBSU Mini Tournament on Saturday. Santa Barbara will have a rematch with #13 Pepperdine, which it defeated 11-10 in a hotly-contested match last Sunday that came down to a goal by sophomore driver Miles Price with just 1:45 remaining.

UCSB will also face nonconference foe #8 UC Davis, currently ranked one spot ahead of Santa Barbara in the national rankings. Although a win over the Aggies would not affect conference standings, it could give them a slight push ahead in the national ranks.

“Even though [Davis] isn’t in our conference, they’re ranked ahead of us and we probably won’t see them the rest of the year,” Wigo said. “So if we can beat them we can possibly move ahead of them in the rankings.”