BERKELEY, Calif. – UC-San Diego coach Denny Harper has seen it all in his 32 years as coach of the Tritons, including the short end of Saturday’s 10-1 beat down at the hands of UCLA in the NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championships semifinals.
So, after USC shredded Princeton 17-4 and then UCLA ensured that the Los Angeles rivalry would continue for a third consecutive week, this time in Sunday’s national championship game, Harper was asked to assess the matchup.
“It’ll probably look like an hour and 10 minutes of a bar fight,” Harper said. “That’s what I think.”
That’s kind of what top-seeded USC (23-2) and second-seeded UCLA (24-4) think, too. The last Mountain Pacific Sports Federation game of the regular season was November 20 at UCLA and USC won 9-6. Nine days later, in the MPSF tournament final, UCLA came away with a 10-9 victory that punched its ticket to the semifinals. USC was assured an at-large bid regardless, but UCLA needed to win that game to make it here.
What’s more, USC is going for an unprecedented fourth NCAA title in a row. Cal, which is the host for this tournament, won three in a row from 1990-92.
The coaches, Jovan Vavic of USC and Adam Wright of UCLA, obviously have a deep respect for each other. They recruit many of the same players, including UCLA’s Josh Samuels, a junior who has scored 47 goals this season, including one Saturday.
“I wouldn’t want to have a chance to beat any team but USC for the championship,” Samuels said.
“The community is so small and we’ve known each other so long, it’s hard to say it’s a mean-spirited rivalry outside the water but inside the water it’s as mean as ever.”
Said Wright, the third-year coach who led UCLA to back-to-back titles in 1999 and 2000, “we always approach it that you’ve got to respect your opponent. You’ve got to respect what USC has done. This is their seventh time here (in the championship match). That’s pretty incredible. As a program, everybody’s chasing USC right now, but we’re going to be up for the challenge of our life [Sunday].”
Vavic, finishing his 17th season at USC has won national titles in 2003, 2005, and the past three years, beating UCLA in the 2009 championship game.
“This has been throughout the years a very, very heated rivalry,” Vavic said. “There’s always a great respect among the coaches but there’s always a great rivalry because it’s USC and UCLA. It’s like Michigan-Michigan State.”
UCLA is trying to win its ninth NCAA water polo championship. USC is trying to make history.
“I think it will be a very close, competitive game, similar to what you saw in the MPSF championship,” UCSD senior goalkeeper David Morton said. “They’re rivals, they’re both very talented teams, excellent goalies on both teams, so I think you’ll have a really high-caliber water polo game between the two.”
Both teams exhibited tremendous defense on Saturday, USC smothering Princeton from the get-go with a stifling push on every Tiger who touched the ball, while UCLA did in UCSD by collapsing on the hole and overwhelming the Tritons with its superior speed and reaction.
“We’re going to make every team earn every inch of water,” USC senior Peter Kurzeka said. “After a goal, a lot of teams like to back off. Other teams swim up and we’re going to wear them out.”
Princeton freshman Tom Nelson, who had two of the Tigers’ goals, was certainly impressed with USC.
“They just hard press you. Some of the guys on our team were not used to that,” Nelson said. “The East Coast teams don’t press quite as hard. In practice we try to emulate that and go full strength, but it’s hard. They’ve won three national championships and it’s hard to emulate a team like that.”
His coach, Luis Nicoloa, agreed.
“They’re so deep and all their players can score,” Nicoloa said. “If one guy’s off their man, they make you pay. They do. To their credit, they’re really well coached and move so well off the ball. They’re a great team.”
Kurzeka, whose four goals Saturday give him a team-high 42 for the season, credited the Trojans coaching staff and system.
“You have talent come in and graduate every year. My sophomore year we lost a ton of guys, but every year we have people come in we buy into that system,” Kurzeka said. “We execute it, we believe in it, we trust in it.
“We work harder than anybody. Year-round.”
USC practices are tough, to say the least.
“But they’re all worth it when you’re in the water at the end for that one day when you get to enjoy it,” Kurzeka said. “All the yelling, it’s so little compared to the big picture at the end.”
Sunday is the end, of course, a great day for a bar fight in a pool. Or a day for two great rivals to declare once and for all who’s the best this season. By the way, this will be the fifth game between them this season: USC beat UCLA 10-8 on Sept. 18 in the NorCal Tournament in Stockton, and then UCLA beat USC 7-6 on Oct. 2 in the SoCal Tournament.
“[Last Sunday] we watched the Bruins celebrate,” Kurzeka said. “They won the game. It wasn’t a must win for us. We knew that going in. We wanted to have a fun game and we don’t get too many games like that where we get to go out and enjoy ourselves.
“We’re right where we want to be. At that time we had accomplished our goal. Our goal was to go to NCAAs and win it all. Only one game matters.”