The No. 5 UCSB men’s water polo team travels to No. 4 USC on Saturday and hosts No. 6 Long Beach State on Sunday in its first two conference games of the season.

The Gauchos will enter the weekend 8-2 following a fifth-place finish in the Nor Cal Tournament two weekends ago. The Trojans have an overall 11-2 record while the 49ers come to town at 9-2 overall.

It will have been almost two weeks since their last match when the Gauchos take on USC on Saturday and Head Coach Wolf Wigo’s team has been looking to improve every day for conference play.

“Our defense struggled at the Nor Cal tournament, so we have been working on that a lot,” freshman utility Chase Racich said. “We have been working on closing down on defenders and not allowing as many shots close to the goal. We want to decrease shots in set and force the team to play in the power play instead. On offense we want to get spread out and get the ball to the strong side in order to get the ball into set to our big guys, [junior two-meter Nick Jordan] and [junior two-meter Samer Alkateb].”

UCSB will be without one of its key players, junior attacker Matt Hamilton. Hamilton sustained a concussion in the match against Long Beach State two weeks ago and hasn’t been able to practice since. It is unknown when he will be able to return to the water.

“Hamilton is one of our leaders. He’s a defensive player we depend on,” Racich said. “We will need guys to step up in our second lineup and put in a strong defensive team effort.”

USC will host the Gauchos on Saturday coming off a 21-5 victory over No. 12 Pepperdine in its first conference match of the season. Freshman utility Bryce Hoerman banged in four goals, a career high, while freshman two-meter Lachlan Edwards potted three goals. In total, 10 Trojans scored to lead a well-balanced attack.

“Last time we played USC we were down 6-5 in the third-quarter and let the game slip away. We have the ability to keep up with them, if not the ability to win,” Racich said. “Last time out we let their players fake ball a lot, and we need to minimize our errors. Our defense made too many mistakes and one thing we will make sure to do is to get out to their shooters faster.”

The Trojans hold an 11-2 record overall coming into their match with UCSB this weekend. Top performers for the Trojans include senior driver Kostas Genidounias, freshman driver Matteo Morelli and freshman driver Grant Stein. The team finished fourth in the Nor Cal Tournament after a loss to No. 3 California in the third-place match after a loss to No. 1 UCLA.

On Sunday the Gauchos will host Long Beach St. in its first home game after the start of the new school year. Long Beach St. is 9-2 with its only previous losses coming at the hands of UCSB and California in the Nor Cal Tournament. The 49ers are led by a strong group of juniors including center Ricardo Guimares, defender Zacchary Kappos and utility Dimitrios Lappas.

The last time these two teams played, the Gauchos won 14-13 in sudden death in a very physical match in which Hamilton suffered his injury.

“Long Beach plays a very physical game,” Racich said. “There will definitely be a lot of energy and it’s gonna be a physical fight. We want to win this one for Matt.”

UCSB hopes to see freshman attacker Josh Jordan and junior attacker Bryan Snyder step up in Hamilton’s absence.

The Gauchos play USC at noon on Saturday at Uytengsu Aquatics Center and host Long Beach State at noon on Sunday.

This story is an online exclusive and did not appear in the print edition of the Daily Nexus.