Rankings never tell the whole story.
And in the case of this week’s D-I men’s water polo list, they can be flat-out wrong.
The NCAA etched USC at No. 4 in the nation. After the three-time defending national champions stumbled with their first two losses of the season at the SoCal tournament on Oct. 2, the Trojans tumbled from their first-place pedestal.
But to the No. 2 Cal men’s water polo team, USC (11-2, 2-0 in the MPSF) is still No. 1 in the nation, the top-tier squad it desperately longs to crush in Saturday’s 2 p.m. match at Spieker Aquatics Center.
“Obviously with the success of the two programs, there’s a built-in rivalry there,” Cal coach Kirk Everist said. “Typically when we play there’s a lot on the line. We’ve been the two teams at the top. They’re the next higher-ranked opponent in our path.”
The two are incredibly similar on paper and in live play. Both run deep benches, pride themselves on defense, and are used to playing in the NCAA finals.
The final part underscores the nature of this rivalry. For the last five years the winner of the national championship has either been Cal (2006 and 2007) or USC (2008-10). Last season, Cal (14-2, 2-0) watched the NCAA title slide from its grasp to USC in double overtime at Spieker Aquatics Center.
Now, in the toughest match of the season thus far, the Bears are looking to even past debts.
“I know for a fact that our guys are going to play this game with passion and pride,” starting goalie and MPSF Player of the Week Justin Parsons said.
At Tuesday afternoon’s practice the team was already demonstrating this. The Bears practiced with added intensity in comparison to previous weeks, fighting tooth-and-nail the way they know they’ll have to this weekend.
The squad ran through possible USC strategies, lining up two-meter attackers and having them unleash power shots. The reason was two-fold: to train a strong offense that, while outscoring opponents 212-90 thus far, has yet to establish a solid center and also to build up a defense that can respond to the USC offensive onslaught led by driver Nikola Vavic and centers Jeremy Davie and Matthew Burton.
“On offense, we’ve got to be pretty disciplined and patient,” Everist said. “When you get in trouble and you’re not patient, they force you to rush or take the shot they’d like you to take. I want the team to look at, is there something else? Instead of taking what we’re given, can we take a second and see what else there is?”
This weekend is Judgment Day for collegiate water polo; this match will give the winner an edge deep into postseason, where the Bears already planning on meeting the Trojans once more.
But as far as edge goes this week, Everist doesn’t know which team has it.
“I’d say it’s a toss-up,” he said. “When both teams come out, it tends to be a one-goal game determined late. I can see it going either way. I don’t know who has the edge, but I do know we’re going to come out ready to play hard.”