SAN DIEGO -- One of the luxuries of finishing the season with a 27-3 record and a No. 2 ranking in the Collegiate Water Polo Association poll is that UCLA earned a bye to the semifinals of the National Collegiate Men’s Water Polo Championships.
The Bruins, along with Stanford, received nearly a two-week break before they play again, allowing the teams to rest and heal before the first game Saturday at Canyonview Aquatic Center on the UC San Diego campus.
Conversely, UC San Diego and USC found themselves playing a week before the tournament to try and earn a spot in the championship.
The advantage would seem to be with the top two teams, but the head coaches for UC San Diego and USC aren’t so sure.“I didn’t really mind that we played last Saturday,” UC San Diego coach Denny Harper said. “The advantage is you play a competitive match and keep your edge.”
A play-in game is unchartered territory for USC coach Jovan Vavic, who has led the Trojans as the No. 1 seed in the championship the past nine years, six of which saw them claim the championship. The streak was broken this year when the team had to play Whittier for the chance to advance. The Trojans routed Whittier 19-4 to make the championship.
“Yes, this is the first time for us,” Vavic said about the play-in game. “It’s all new to us. I am used to more time to condition and prepare the team. I don’t think it was a problem, though.”
One possible disadvantage for USC is their opponent in the semifinals. The Trojans will face Stanford, a team it has lost to twice this season, including a 7-4 defeat in the conference semifinals.
Vavic is also working with one of the youngest teams he has ever coached. His squad of 16 includes nine freshmen and two sophomores.
“Even though they are young, I like this team,” Vavic said. “They have a lot of talent and are very mature. I don’t think having to play an extra game is going to affect them.”
Neither does Harper, whose team defeated Brown 12-7 to advance and will play top seed UCLA in the first of two games on Saturday, with the winner reaching Sunday’s title game.
“I think playing worked for us,” Harper said. “It has allowed us to stay focused. We are representing all the underdogs so we have a lot of people rooting for us.”
The pressure for the Tritons was to get to the semifinals, because UC San Diego was hosting the championship.
“When we bid for this and we got it, we thought we better make the championship,” Harper said. “I think they have the right attitude going in, but they know how tough UCLA is. I think they realize they are playing with house money.”
Harper has tried to use the home-pool advantage as much as possible, delaying checking into the hotel a day to allow players to sleep in their own beds.
"I think hosting is an advantage for any team,” Harper said. “We are looking for any possible advantage we can get.”
UCLA coach Adam Wright liked the advantage he got with an extra week, but after a couple of days to let his guys heal and rest, it was back in the pool.
“You want to take the time off to get guys healthy and rested, but that can be a positive and a negative,” Wright said. “The guys want to play, they are anxious to get back out there.”
Especially after the Bruins' performance in the conference semifinals, when UCLA lost to Long Beach State 5-3 in a tournament it was favored to win.
“Our guys were pretty resilient throughout the season,” Wright said. “Maybe they were looking ahead a little bit, but it was just a bad game for us.”
It was the Bruins' third loss of the season and Wright was looking to how his team would react in the third-place game the following day. The team responded, defeating rival USC 10-5.
“That game was a big test and I was glad to see how they played,” Wright said. “We showed up and they showed me a lot.”
To counter any possibility of rust, Wright scheduled scrimmages with the non-traveling members of the team and it might have been an even bigger benefit.
“The inner-squad games were beneficial if not more so than a play-in game,” Wright said. “We have a great group of non-travel guys that are really physical and really take it to the other guys.”
Rest or no rest, each team knows there is one key they must have when they get in the pool on Saturday.
“It’s about being fresh,” Wright said. “If you aren’t prepared and ready to play you are going to lose.”