It was Saturday night in Los Angeles, and Cal junior Luca Cupido was once again in the pool with Trojan junior McQuin Baron and freshman Thomas Dunstan. But this time, it was as competitors rather than USA Olympic teammates.
Two 2016 Olympians and home-pool advantage proved enough this time around for No. 3 USC as it was able to defeat the No. 2 Cal men’s water polo team, 10-6, at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center. The Bears (15-3) are now 1-1 against the Trojans (18-1) this season, with each having won at home.
“Overall, as a team we didn’t play together as we needed to to play against the top teams,” said Cal head coach Kirk Everist. “The first game we were way up on them and got them off their game plan, and in the second they did the same thing to us. This is typically what happens when teams start to scramble a little, and it creates mistakes.”
The first goal was scored by USC, a little less than halfway through the first quarter by junior Matteo Morelli. Hooper and junior Conor Neumann both had their shots stopped by Baron before Hooper was finally able to put Cal on the scoreboard, assisted by Cupido. The Trojans’ strong defense plagued the Bears in the first quarter, causing them to have five turnovers. Despite senior Connor Neumann’s two goals in the second period, Cal still trailed 3-5 after eight saves from Baron.
The Bears held on at the beginning of the second half, as Hooper assisted junior Pedro Stellet before scoring a goal of his own to push Cal to within one. But as soon as the Bears seemed to get close, USC appeared to push back even harder. Morelli scored again for the Trojans and also assisted another goal. Freshman Safak Simsek countered with a goal of his own assisted by Hooper, right before the start of the final period.
The Bears’ score didn’t change in the fourth quarter as the Trojans took off with another goal by Morelli and a shot by junior Lachlan Edwards, who was assisted by none other than Morelli. Cal still had six minutes left to make some sort of comeback, but efforts were stifled by the superiority of Baron in goal, and the Bears were sent home with a loss.
“We had a six-on-five to potentially tie it,” Everist said. “We had some rushed shots and it gave USC momentum, which hurt us when we were 5-4 with a chance to go 5-5 to 9-5. When you try to rush things, you tend to have to scramble back on defense and they made us pay.”
Cal also seemed to struggle on its power plays, going 0-6 for the game, while USC was 3-7. The Trojans’ strong defense was on full display as the Bears were only able to make six out of the 34 shots they took. Aside from Baron’s obvious influence on the team’s success, Matteo seemed to be USC’s star of the game, ending the match with four goals, two assists and two steals.
This surely won’t be the last time the Bears will face the Trojans this season — both will likely be more than prepared for the next rematch between the two.
Taylor Choe covers men’s water polo. Contact her at [email protected]al.org