Following its decisive 13-6 victory over then-No. 9 Long Beach State, No. 5 USC men’s water polo will face a field of tough competitors at the SoCal Invitational, which runs Friday through Sunday at Loyola Marymount and UCLA.
The tournament field features 16 teams from around the country, including all of the top 10 teams. USC won last year’s SoCal Invitational — then called the Mountain Pacific Invitational — with a narrow 10-9 win over Stanford in the championship game.
The Trojans face No. 14 Princeton Friday in the first round of the tournament. The Tigers are 5-5 on the season but have lost to some of the nation’s strongest opponents, including No. 2 UCLA and No. 3 Stanford.
Princeton’s freshman attacker Yurian Quinones has made a splash in his debut season, posting 15 goals in ten games as well as five multiple-goal efforts. USC has not yet faced Quinones, so it must focus on assessing and containing the young scoring threat.
A win against the Tigers would send the Trojans to UCLA’s Spieker Aquatic Center to face No. 13 LMU or No. 4 Pacific.
Despite the uncertainty about which opponents USC will face in the later rounds of the tournament, sophomore two-meter Jake Ehrhardt said the team feels prepared heading into the weekend.
“We know most of the people we’re going to play this weekend,” Ehrhardt said. “[I’ve] played against these guys for the past two years, and our head coach [Marko Pintaric] has seen these programs for the past 20 years. We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but we have a good idea of what they’re going to come with.”
After giving up 13 goals in their loss to No. 1 UC Santa Barbara on Sept. 15, the Trojans continue to focus on defense. They allowed a markedly lower six goals to Long Beach State last Thursday, and must continue to hold strong against talented opposing offenses this weekend.
“Defense is always a big part of our game,” Ehrhardt said. “I think we’re going to keep focusing on that. As far as the rest of the game goes, we know what we have to do in terms of offense. We’re a counterattack-driven team, and we also get a lot of play from our center, so we’re just going to keep trying to do what we’ve been doing all season.”
The Trojans’ attack has been consistently strong this season, with the offense averaging 17 goals per game. Junior driver Jacob Mercep, last season’s NCAA tournament MVP, propels the Trojans’ offensive action. Mercep, named the MPSF Player of the Week for his five-goal performance against Long Beach State last Thursday, has set the pace for the Trojan offense with 16 goals in five games.
Along with their talented returners, the Trojans welcomed several new impactful playmakers. Sophomore driver Matt Harrison, freshman 2-meter Grayden Reynolds, and freshman drivers Marcus Longton and Chris Sturtevant have already made their first goals for USC.
Ehrhardt stressed the importance of mentoring these newcomers to help them adjust to the Trojans’ system.
“For young players … it’s really about the upperclassmen trying to integrate them into the team, teach them everything we know,” Ehrhardt said. “Before we know, all the older guys are going to be out of the system, and it’s going to be the young guys’ team. So we really just have to pass on what we’ve learned.”
The Trojans’ match against Princeton begins 3:40 p.m. on Friday at LMU. Should the Trojans advance, the next two rounds of the tournament will be held on Saturday, while the championship match takes place on Sunday.