SAN DIEGO -- They’ve played three times this season, twice in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation regular season and then in the tournament semifinals. All three times UCLA beat USC by one goal, the last time a fierce 4-3 defensive battle.

“Ever since I committed to UCLA I knew that playing USC was going to be something you would always remember,” said UCLA senior KK Clark, who tops the Bruins with 55 goals after scoring four against Iona and chose the Bruins over Cal and USC.

“It’s not about the team, it’s about the storied programs and the storied rivalry. It’s definitely something that’s so much fun to be able to represent UCLA because the rivalry runs so deep.”

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“It’s emotional, it’s exciting, we know what’s at stake,” said USC senior Nadia Dan. “But it’s also what we play sports for. It’s what we live for, these kind of games.”

So you just knew that they would square off again, these two rivals from Los Angeles, with a national title at stake. And so it will be Saturday in the semifinals of the 2012 NCAA Championship at San Diego State.

Second-seeded UCLA (22-3) advanced by crushing Iona 14-3 in the first match Friday. Third-seeded USC (22-5) blasted Princeton 14-2. The winner Saturday advances to the national-championship game on Sunday.

The last time these two programs played with everything on the line was last December at Cal when USC beat UCLA to win the men’s NCAA water polo title. Now veteran coach Jovan Vavic, who leads both programs, is trying match the feat of doubling in the same school year for the fourth time. USC last did it in the fall of 2009 and spring of 2010. But that was before he started coaching his own children, Nikola on the men’s team; Monica on the women’s.

“It’s the most exciting game for us year-round,” Vavic said. “It’s a cross-town rivalry, these are the two programs that have the won the most national championships and we are 15 miles away from each other and we compete for the same recruits and many of these players who end up going to UCLA I recruited very hard and vice-versa, so it is very emotional and a very meaningful game for us.

“It’s like Duke and North Carolina in basketball.”

Interestingly, third-year UCLA coach Brandon Brooks said almost the same thing.

“SC-UCLA, I think we are the closest rivalry schools or maybe the second behind Duke and North Carolina,” Brooks said. “But that feeling is always there, SC and UCLA and the fact that traditionally we’ve both been very good water polo teams. There’s no love lost.”

UCLA junior Giselle Naranjo chose the Bruins, “for every reason. Academically and because of the water polo program. All around it’s the best school, I think.”

It’s not about the team, it’s about the storied programs and the storied rivalry. It’s definitely something that’s so much fun to be able to represent UCLA because the rivalry runs so deep.
-- UCLA's KK Clark

That depends on which side of town you grew up on, of course. If the case of Monica Vavic, she’s trying to keep pace with her brother and pull off a feat that would have to a first for one family in the sports of water polo.

“I’m easier on her than my son,” Jovan Vavic said as he planted a wet kiss on her cheek. “I’m hard on everyone, but Monica is a hard-working and determined and committed player so there is no need to get on her too much.”

Vavic, from the former Yugoslavia, has won seven men’s NCAA titles -- including the last four -- and three women’s. There was no doubt that Monica would play for him, although she said that when Brooks was an assistant coach at UCLA “it probably wasn’t official and might have been a joke, but he handed me his card at a game once,” she said. “I don’t think that counts for anything.”

Family aside, the winner will be one win from winning it all.

“At the end of the year no matter what you’ve got to win games. USC is a fantastic opponent, they’re very well coached,” Brooks said. “We’ve come out on the victorious side each time we’ve played them this year but it’s been a one-goal game every time. Like a good rivalry game, it’s been hard fought all the way by both teams.

“If we play them it’s going to be the same game plan as always, playing good defense and trying to do our best offensively.”

The first time they played, at UCLA on February 26, the Bruins came through with an 8-7 victory. On March 3 at USC, they were winners again, 6-5, setting up the last MPSF meeting.

“At this point it really doesn’t matter. That’s behind us,” Jovan Vavic said. “That really doesn’t matter. Sometimes these games are decided by a rebound, a little bit of this or a little bit of that. It’s a new day. I don’t see any pressure on us. We have lost five games to [top-seeded] Stanford and UCLA this year, so I don’t think we are expected to win [Saturday]. We will go into that game as the underdog, which we are.”

Not that UCLA would buy any of that.

“It’s always going to be close against SC and it’s awesome that we’ve been able to pull through,” Clark said. “But I think we respect them and they respect us. The competitive fire is there, the respect is there, so it’s always a good game when we play them.”