For the #7 UCSB men’s water polo team (12-7 overall, 0-1 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation), this weekend’s Southern California Tournament in Irvine is a time of opportunity and a chance to make a major statement to other teams around the conference.

Of the 16 teams competing in the tournament, 14 are nationally ranked in the top 20. A strong Gaucho performance would legitimize its status as an elite team in the nation and put it up there with #1 USC, #2 Cal, #3 Stanford and #4 UCLA, all of which will be competing in the tournament. Overall, the top eight teams in the nation will be in the water at Irvine.

UCSB finds itself in a bracket with four-time defending tournament champion USC, as well as #10 Loyola Marymount University and the University of Redlands. Failing to win the bracket would mean the Gauchos would finish no higher than fifth, so a win against USC is crucial if the team intends to finish among the elite.

Santa Barbara will get things going against LMU, which it has already beaten twice this season. The Gauchos have outscored the Lions 20-11 in two meetings, although the second match was considerably closer than the final score indicated.

In recent weeks the Gauchos fought off a frustrating midseason slide that saw them drop six of seven, with five of those defeats coming by a single goal. As has been the case all year, UCSB will turn to its senior leaders at key positions for this pivotal point in the season. Senior goalie Rick Wright, senior 2-meter Matt Dale and senior driver Ross Sinclair will be looked upon for leadership as they head into the homestretch of their final season.

The Gauchos’ first game against LMU is scheduled for 9:20 a.m. at the Corona del Mar High School Pool in Newport Beach, Calif. Subsequent games are determined by results from other tournament games.