After months of deliberation, the date is set — the NCAA men’s water polo season will begin Jan. 16. But given the postponement and existing coronavirus restrictions, it remains unclear who USC will have on its roster come spring and how long the full team will be able to practice as one.
Coach Marko Pintaric had only led the men’s and women’s water polo teams for about six months before COVID-19 concerns brought the women’s season to an abrupt halt. He’d taken over for former coach Jovan Vavic, who was arrested in March 2019 for his alleged role in the “Varsity Blues” admissions scandal.
After working with Vavic for 17 years, Pintaric now only communicates with the former head coach from a coach-to-parent standpoint, given that Vavic has two sons, Marko and Stefan, still playing at USC. Both brothers sat out last season, and their eligibility going forward is still being decided by the NCAA.
Shortly after inheriting a program in turmoil, Pintaric was thrown another curveball with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Along with all other spring sports, the women’s water polo season was cut short this past March.
With nearly two decades of experience on USC’s staff, Pintaric has brought consistency that his players appreciate in a time of uncertainty.
“Really in the last year, his life has been turned upside down,” said junior 2-meter Jake Ehrhardt. “So it’d be really hard to expect someone to be able to put all their time and all their effort into it, but he’s managed to do it. He’s living and breathing this program, and it’s an honor to play for him.”
The men’s team began on-campus workouts in July on a voluntary basis. These workouts were paused for two weeks beginning Aug. 26, when eight players from the football and men’s water polo teams tested positive for COVID-19.
Many athletes across all sports used stay-at-home orders as an opportunity to get faster and stronger. But Pintaric said that none of his players came back to USC this fall stronger than when they’d left. There’s always an open road for players to run on and weights in a teammate’s basement to lift, but without open pools, it’s hard to stay in water polo shape.
“We’re really feeling blessed that we’re in the water right now,” Pintaric said.
While much of the team is together on campus now, practicing in the pool, many of USC’s foreign players remain at home. European clubs are currently allowed to train and compete as normal.
“It was in the best interest of these students to be with their families and maximize their training and their development,” Pintaric said.
With the Olympics set to begin in July 2021, it’s unclear how much of USC’s roster will be available for the spring season. Pintaric said some players have already decided to take next year off from college water polo, while others are uncertain if they will take time away to vie for a spot on their national team.
Recruiting has also been difficult during the pandemic. High school teams had to cease play. Now it’s harder to evaluate talent, as in-person evaluations have been replaced by phone calls and Zoom meetings.
“It’s going to be interesting to see the talent pool the way it’s shifted,” Pintaric said.
Despite that, Pintaric does not think there will be any tangible changes to the level of interest in USC’s program from recruits.
The biggest focus for the Trojans now, Pintaric said, is making sure they’re able to continue training in the pool.
“The No. 1 thing is that our athletes now learning about the process really understand how important it is to respect the team rules, respect the university rules and minimize the exposure and minimize the spread of the disease,” Pintaric said. “That’s where we’re trying to be the champions.”