Sports

'Band of brothers’: Jacob Mercep puts mentoring teammates over accolades

Last year’s NCAA Tournament MVP strives to teach younger players and share his love of the game.

From his childhood in Dubrovnik, Croatia — a city that lives and breathes water polo — to his collegiate career in the U.S., junior driver Jacob Mercep’s competitive nature always brings him back to the water.

“[Playing water polo] was an idea from my brother when we were 8-years-old, 13 years ago,” Mercep said. “My family is from Dubrovnik, and water polo is the biggest sport there, so every kid bounces back into water polo every now and then, and I just went with it.”

Mercep said he immediately appreciated the fun, competitive atmosphere of the game and stuck with it because he wanted to see where his talent could take him in the future.

In high school, Mercep competed for Croatia’s Jug Dubrovnik, one of the most prestigious water polo clubs in the world. He also started playing internationally for Croatia, bringing home a gold medal at the 2016 FINA Youth World Championships.

Mercep recalled the impact of former coach Veselin Đuho, whom he trained under while playing for Jug Dubrovnik. A two-time Olympic gold medalist for Yugoslavia, Đuho served as a role model to young Mercep, who dreamt of competing in the Olympics.

“He was always a good spirit in my career and always had support for me and love in all ways,” Mercep said. “I’m really grateful that I [could] be his apprentice.”

Mercep started his college career at San Jose State in 2017. He put up a conference-high 3.44 goals per game, including seven six-goal performances, and earned Golden Coast Conference Newcomer of the Year.

Following his breakout season at SJSU, Mercep set his sights on attending USC.

“I was very eager to play here because of everything good that I’d heard about the program before,” Mercep said. “The entire Trojan family is this strong community that sticks together and makes you feel so welcome and wishes you to be the best you can be. That’s something that [I had] never been a part of before.”

Compared to how it’s played back home in Dubrovnik, Mercep said USC’s brand of water polo feels like a completely different sport in terms of how the team practices and prepare for its opponents. He said the transition between the two approaches to the game was difficult at first.

“Water polo back home is not what it is at USC,” Mercep said. “I play[ed] for Jug Dubrovnik … and the practices were [easier] but more technically based than at USC. At USC, the practices are very hard, but there is also complex analysis of ourselves, the opponent, preparation, mental toughness, mental aspects of the game. [I had] never been introduced to that before, so the transition was very interesting.”

With a year of collegiate water polo experience under his belt, Mercep came to USC ready to mentor his younger teammates. One such teammate is freshman 2-meter Jake Ehrhardt.

“I just try to pick his brain as much as possible,” Ehrhardt said. “He’s seriously a water polo genius. After the first conversation I had with him, I knew that I could learn so much, and I’m still trying to learn from him even to this day.”

Mercep’s success continued in his debut season as a Trojan. He scored 66 goals in 33 games, and his five-goal effort in USC’s national championship victory over Stanford earned him the title of NCAA Tournament MVP.

Despite his numerous accolades, Mercep said that it is the players around him who allow him to compete at his best.

“I would never be able to do it without my teammates,” Mercep said. “Especially the ones who are covering out for me and helping me in little things, passing me the ball at the right time. All of these things stand behind individual awards, not just something that I can say that I’ve earned and that’s it.”

Mercep’s favorite part of being at USC is getting to spend time with his teammates and feeling the support of the Trojan family.

“We’re a band of brothers, and I really enjoy spending time with them inside and outside of the pool,” Mercep said.

Mercep’s family-oriented nature stems from the big, tight-knit family, most of which lives back in Croatia. He is the second oldest of the family’s six boys, including Ivan Mercep, who plays UC Irvine as a center. Mercep said he is excited for the “clash of brothers” in USC’s matchup with the Anteaters this Saturday.

Mercep has gotten off to another dominant start this season, earning last week’s MPSF Player of the Week distinction for his five-goal performance in the Trojans’ victory over Long Beach State.

“He’s such an irreplaceable person on this team,” Ehrhardt said. “It’s a big honor to be able to play with him. I played against him overseas for a couple years prior [to playing at USC], and I could see just by watching him play how much he understands water polo and how much he knows.”

Mercep said that supporting his teammates in and out of the pool is at the top of his agenda this season. He also hopes that the Trojans can defend their championship title.

“I think helping the teammates is my main individual goal,” Mercep said. “I always try to make myself as available for the team as I can. For the team goal, defending the national championship would be an extreme honor since defending is always harder than winning, so that’s the No. 1 priority this year.”

Although water polo takes up most of Mercep’s time in the fall, he describes himself as a “social butterfly” and enjoys spending his free time with friends or watching movies or other sports.

Mercep still hopes to compete for Croatia in the Olympics someday, bringing his love for the game back to where it all started.