Boris Jovanovic searches for a pass. Christina DeMarzo/Daily Nexus

No. 5 UCSB men’s water polo team, currently 16-8 overall and 1-1 in conference play, will face No. 9 Long Beach State this Friday in the Gauchos’ second to last home game of the season. Coming off a down-to-the-wire loss to No. 4 UC Berkeley by a score of 13-12, Santa Barbara will look to break its two-game losing streak and rebound against a 49er squad who has struggled mightily this season with a 7-10 record.

Both teams are very familiar with each other, having faced each other twice on the year, with the ‘Chos getting the victory both times thus far. Last week, Long Beach State lost a more competitive match than the final score (6-13) would indicate to the No. 3 USC Trojans.

Despite the loss to USC, Long Beach is supported by redshirt junior attacker Austin Stewart leads the 49ers with 34 goals and six assists this season.

Losers of nine of their last 10 games, Long Beach State is desperate to break out of their recent struggles. During this stretch, they have been unable to find any sort of rhythm on offense, with an average of a mere eight goals per game. The 49ers will likely look towards Stewart to solidify an offensive attack heading into their Santa Barbara matchup.

One major key to success for UCSB will be to keep the 49ers under 10 goals for the entire match, as the Gauchos have a record of 11-1 when this occurs. Sophomore goalkeeper Tiago Bonchristiano continues to gain more confidence in front of the net with the more experience he gets and has only allowed an average of 10 goals per game this month.

Moreover, it will be crucial for senior driver Boris Jovanovic to constantly put pressure on the 49er defense and remain involved offensively as he leads the team in goals. Coming off a huge five-goal game against Berkeley’s line of defense, Jovanovic should have no issue getting things started for the Gauchos again this week.

In an up-and-down month for Santa Barbara, one bright spot has been the play of its offense as the Gauchos have continued to find ways to find the back of the net, primarily due to the unselfish nature of the team. Four players currently have more than 10 assists, which makes the ‘Chos extremely hard to defend. This is especially true when teams are forced to put so much energy into containing Jovanovic up front.

As just three games remain on the schedule, UCSB will look to end the year on a high note and reach 19 wins on the season, which would be a major improvement from last year where the team finished the season with a sub-.500, 11-12 record.

With the potential of an eight-game improvement, it is clear that the Gauchos have made major strides this season, in spite of losing a handful of close games to the nation’s top programs.

Additionally, with promising youth on the roster, UCSB and head coach Wolf Wigo will have plenty to work with going forward, with or without GCC success this season. The Gauchos will play Long Beach State at 3 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 26, and will look to get their third win at home.

A version of this story appeared on page 8 in the Oct. 25th print edition of the Daily Nexus.