Coach Adam Wright and UCLA hope to advance to the NCAA water polo championship… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
No team from outside California team has won the men's NCAA water polo championship in its last 43 events. Or even finished second.
So when the NCAA championships begin Saturday at USC's McDonald's Swim Stadium, smart money is not on St. Francis of New York or Air Force.
Top-seeded and four-time defending champion USC (27-0) will play fourth-seeded Air Force (19-10) at 1 p.m. Then second-seeded UCLA, the 2011 runner-up, will play third-seeded St. Francis.
This would all seem set to lead up to the inevitable, a fourth championship meeting between the Trojans and Bruins (27-4) at 3 p.m Sunday.
St. Francis (16-8) earned its trip to California by winning the Collegiate Water Polo Assn. Eastern championship for an automatic bid to the Final Four. Air Force (19-10) earned its bid by beating UC San Diego for the Western Water Polo Assn. title and is returning to the finals for the first time since 1997.
USC got its automatic bid by beating California in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation final. The Bears had upset second-ranked UCLA in the conference semifinals, leaving the Bruins to hope for the single at-large bid, which they received.
Adam Wright, UCLA's coach, said, "It would be pretty nice to play USC on Sunday, but you never know. History says it will be tough for that not to happen, but history isn't always right."
USC is on a 29-match winning streak; its last loss came last year to UCLA during the regular season.
The Trojans are coached by Jovan Vavic, who has a 418-64 career record with USC. Vavic's son, Nikola, a junior, leads USC with 79 goals, and Kostas Genidounias has 62, the most formidable scoring pair in the country.
USC captain Matt Burton, a fifth-year senior going for his fifth title, said a USC-UCLA matchup Sunday "would be sweet." "It's not that there's bad blood," he said, "but we played in the finals last year and in 2009 and they're tired of losing to us. So anything can happen."