Historic clash looms
USC looks to make history, but familiar UCLA wants title back
"It's everything I've ever dreamed of."
Those are the words of USC senior Matt Burton as he thinks about the impending NCAA championship match against UCLA on Sunday. This cross-town rivalry is fierce in any sport, but water polo must be near the top of the list where annually the two schools are always among the nation's elite.
For the third time in the past four years, the two will mix it up for all the water polo marbles, and for USC it is a chance to win their record fifth consecutive NCAA title and complete an undefeated season. The Trojans will also have the luxury of hosting the match at their pool, the McDonald's Swim Stadium, future site of the Uytengsu Aquatics Center.
Credit for all the success usually goes to the head coach, says the man in charge of the Trojans, Jovan Vavic, but he credits the entire team.
"In our program I think we have a great coaching staff. My assistants are the best in the country. We also have great players, some of the best from around the world," Vavic said. "When you enter our program you learn our attitude and culture of hard work. If you buy into the culture, and work hard, the results come."
UCLA knows a little bit about what the Trojans are doing, winning four titles in six years back in the late 90s, but the ultimate prize has been missing from Westwood since 2004. A shift in supremacy this current edition of Bruins are looking to halt.
"You have to give credit where credit is due," UCLA Head Coach Adam Wright said. "Those four championships, that started a long time ago, bringing in the right players, putting them into a system, creating a belief. It's quite a feat, but [Sunday] is one game, we can't think about four times, it's about us and one game."
The two teams have met twice this year, both wins for USC but only by one goal each. In 2011 UCLA topped the Trojans to claim the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation title (the Trojans last loss) and an automatic bid to the NCAA championship only to have the Men of Troy return the favor a week later. More of the same is expected on Sunday.
It has to be, considering the shared experience of these two.
"We play UCLA anywhere from four to 10 times a year. Since they are such a familiar opponent, it is really difficult since we learn each other's tendencies," said Burton. "[Sunday], it will be a battle. The rivalry with UCLA is ingrained in you the minute that you step on campus here at USC, from your friends, to your professors, to alumni."
For players on the UCLA team, despite the gravity of the situation, not much will change in their efforts to top a team that will make its eighth consecutive appearance in the title match.
"We just treat it like any other game, " said senior Griffin White. "You wake up in the morning and do your same routine.
Senior goalkeeper Matt Rapacz echoed those thoughts. "It's my last game, [but] every night I try to visualize and calm the nerves. It's two great teams, nothing really special that I do," said Rapacz. "This game means a little more to me."
The most recent sampling from the two teams was a 10-9 win two weeks ago for USC, a game that saw the Bruins battle back to tie the match late before succumbing to a Trojan run. With rain in Sunday's forecast, Wright will be ready for anything this time around.
"I hope it's pouring and crazy, this is something that we have been talking about all week, whatever the condition, sunny or dark, we are ready to go," he said. "I expect it is going to be a madhouse. It is all about us tomorrow. Our goal is to come in ready to go, to play possession by possession."
Whatever the elements for the match, the stands are expected to be packed as water polo's best square off. As White explains, the similarities of the teams make a close game highly likely.
"We both have two pretty deep teams, strong in every facet of the game, it is tough to score goals on the opponent," he said. "They [USC] are a good team, they love to win, they never let down, you have to play 32 hard minutes to win."