USC men’s water polo typically plays a slate of nonconference games at the beginning of the season before MPSF competition, allowing the team to test its newcomers before they dive into the deep end with tough conference opponents. But this year, given the conference-only schedule necessitated by COVID-19 restrictions, the No. 1 Trojans faced stout competition out of the gate in a tournament with No. 5 Cal and No. 3 UCLA.

USC dominated both opponents on Saturday, defeating Cal 9-6 and UCLA 12-7. But with only 10 available field players due to contact tracing, the Trojans’ fatigue led to mistakes on Sunday, resulting in a 12-9 loss to Cal and 11-8 loss to UCLA.

Each of the three teams emerged 2-2 from the tournament, foreshadowing what may be a highly contested road to the MPSF Championship in March.

USC showed off its sharpshooters out of the gate on Saturday. Senior driver Jacob Mercep tallied 10 goals on the day, including a career-high seven-goal performance against UCLA that lifted him to No. 25 on USC’s career scoring list. Freshman driver Carson Kranz and senior two-meter Wyatt Barker, a transfer from Pacific, each posted three goals on Saturday.

Pintaric wasn’t surprised by Kranz’s early impact this season.

“We already knew that he might play a significant role,” Pintaric said. “He proved in these four games against top-five opponents that he can hold his ground and contribute immediately. We are very pleased with his performance.”

On Day 2, it was USC’s opponents that tallied the majority of the shots, with both Cal and UCLA scoring in double-digits and junior goalie Nic Porter matching a career best with 20 saves.

Pintaric noted that his players were a step slow, potentially due to a lack of rest time, but said he and his staff could have made better adjustments and play calls to address opposing offenses.

“Water polo is a game of inches, and we gave up way too many goals, way too many chances, shots in frame,” he said. “This is not the way USC plays defense.”

While it was difficult for the team being shorthanded in the rotation due to contact tracing, Pintaric said he also empathized with the players who were unable to make the trip and get their first playing time after an extended offseason.

“That’s very unfortunate because I’m really proud of all the boys, the way they trained and they fought super hard,” he said. “And we missed the opportunity to test those four players — we would have tried to give everybody equal minutes.”

The Trojans have nearly two weeks to practice and return players from quarantine before they host Cal and UCLA in the Round 2 Tournament on Feb. 6-7. That will be the second of three tournament weekends that decide the seeding for the MPSF Championship.