No. 3 Cal men’s water polo braces for clash with top-ranked USC

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Aditi Raghunath/File

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Sometimes teams are so evenly matched that one could toss a coin to decide who the winner will be in a potential showdown. In the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, or MPSF, No. 3 Cal men’s water polo and the rest of its conference foes fit that bill, as is the case with the Bears’ opponent this weekend. On Saturday, Cal will travel to Los Angeles to take on No. 1 USC, but don’t let the rankings fool you into thinking the Trojans automatically have the upper hand.

Surely, this game will have massive implications on MPSF, as the winner of the match sits in the driver’s seat to win the regular season conference title. Cal head coach Kirk Everist and his squad are very aware of that.

“We have a conference win under our belt and, now, we have to get on the road and go play the top team in the country, which will be a challenge in their pool,” Everist said.

In fact, MPSF is comprised of the current top four teams in the nation: the Trojans, Bears, No. 4 UCLA and No. 2 Stanford. These teams are consistently at the top of the game year after year and seemingly trade off national championships.

The Bears have been strong this year, but the Trojans are just as talented. USC completely dismantled Cal in the teams’ first meeting this season at the MPSF Invitational, 13-6. Everist and company aim to even the series against the Trojans in the same way they sought revenge on the Bruins last weekend with a huge, 9-7 victory.

Cal was completely unable to shut down USC sophomore Jacob Mercep, who exploded for five goals in the Oct. 13 matchup between the Bears and Trojans. Sophomore Marko Vavic added a pair, as well. When doing the math, that duo scored seven goals — precisely the margin of victory for USC.

Mercep and Vavic are tied for the lead in goals on the Trojan roster with 50 each on the season. Both stars will likely be the main source of frustration from the Cal defense come game time. But, Cal seniors Johnny Hooper and Vassilis Tzavaras have led fantastic defensive efforts by the entire team of late.

One of the lone bright spots for Cal in the previous matchup was junior Safak Simsek who accounted for more than half of the Bears’ offensive production on the day. His four goals kept things somewhat close in the first half before USC broke away late.

To have more success this time around, the Bears need to hone in on the Trojans’ shooters and have their own offensive weapons be on point, as well. USC knows how good Cal really is and will expect a tough fight. A win is definitely not out of the question for either side, especially with conference seeding on the line.

“Can we go into the conference tournament as the No. 1 seed?” Everist said.

That is the question he will be asking of his team this weekend, and a win is necessary to keep that goal alive.

The Bruins are the defending national champions; the Bears took the crown in 2016 — could it be the Trojans’ turn in 2018? For Cal’s sake, the squad certainly aims for a victory to dash any hope for USC and propel its own sights for success, as the Bears enter the final stretch of the season.

Charlie Griffen covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].