Water Polo

USC men’s water polo clinches No. 1 seed in NCAA Tournament

The team prepares to chase the national title after finishing third in the MPSF Tournament.

Senior Goalkeeper Nic Porter deflects the ball at the Men's Water Polo Conference Championship decider between USC Trojans and the UCLA Bruins.

No. 2 USC men’s water polo earned the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament despite taking third in the MPSF Tournament this past weekend.

The Trojans fought hard Saturday but could not beat UCLA twice in one season, narrowly losing 6-5. USC bounced back Sunday with an 11-9 win over Cal in the third-place game.

The game against UCLA served as a reminder for the Trojans to remain aggressive during power plays after they failed to score during 6-on-5. This will be imperative in the NCAA finals, as 6-on-5 opportunities are where scoring chances are most bountiful. As the No. 1 seed entering the tournament, the Trojans know they’ll have to be at their sharpest to bring home the title.

“It’s always the number one goal for this team, in order to win a national championship,” head coach Marko Pintaric said about earning the No. 1 seed. “So, mission accomplished.”

After a full season of competition, teams have done their homework. The preparation that went into this weekend’s games didn’t go unnoticed. UCLA maintained their strong defense in the two teams’ second meeting, working hard to keep the Trojans at bay. In highly competitive games such as these, especially against the rival Bruins, playing from ahead is imperative to winning.

The Bruins maintained the lead for much of the game. USC played catch-up in the first period before tying the game 3-3 in the final seconds of the frame on a 5-meter penalty shot by junior driver Hannes Daube. However, USC hit a scoring drought after a third quarter goal from graduate 2-meter Wyatt Barker. They were unable to score against UCLA’s defense for the remainder of the half, but managed to return the favor, shutting out the Bruins offense in the fourth period.

This was a reminder for the Trojans of what to expect should they face the Bruins again in the NCAA Tournament. USC quickly learned from its mistakes and turned up the heat Sunday afternoon against Cal.

The win over the Golden Bears was integral for the team’s seeding in the NCAA Tournament. In a game with constant lead changes, field players in goalie caps and a record number of saves, the Trojans fought tooth-and-nail for their win.

During three separate instances throughout the game the Trojans trailed by one goal, but the second half is when they turned it on to secure the win.

The third period was chaotic. USC jumped ahead 5-3 after a shot from sophomore 2-meter Max Miller, but Cal fired back-to-back goals to tie up the game 5-5. Star senior driver Jacob Mercep scored off a skip shot to put the Trojans up 6-5 halfway through the third. However, Cal was relentless and hammered in two goals, giving them a 7-6 advantage. With five seconds left in the third, Pintaric threw junior driver Ashworth Molthen in the goalie cap. Molthen scored from afar, making a buzzer beater goal to lock in a 7-7 tie heading into the final frame.

The Trojans eventually took control during the fourth period with a three-goal run from sophomore driver Carson Kranz, Daube and Mercep to grab the win.

Stalwart senior goalie Nic Porter was integral to the win, contributing 14 saves to improve to No. 4 all-time at USC with 652 career saves. The Trojans are now 17-2 overall with their second win over Cal this season.

The victory over the Golden Bears was important in helping the team establish a rhythm before the NCAA Tournament. This is not new territory for the Trojans, who are so used to making the postseason that it has become an expectation.

“We’ve been there many times, so we know what it takes,” Pintaric said. “Great thing about this one again is that we captured that No. 1 seed, so we play one game less. But then again, there’s some disadvantages, as shown in the last tournament against the best opponent and assessing the playing game.”.

As the team prepares, it is not only the players who have put the work in. Pintaric highlighted his coaching staff and the constant work they have put into developing players.

“We will work as a coaching staff. I don’t want to talk about myself. I have really the best, hardest working coaching staff,” Pintaric said. “We will figure it out to put the players in the best possible situation, give them confidence so they can feel mentally and physically to the 100%.”

With the upcoming week free of games, the team looks to prepare for their semifinal match and put together their strongest sixteen-man roster. Even though this is a veteran-driven team, younger players still have a chance to make their mark and possibly secure a spot on the roster.

“They train really hard and they really wait for their opportunity. And then when the opportunity presents, they really take it,” Pintaric said of his young players ‘’So I’m very happy, you know, the way the team responded and the way everybody responded in the final tournament. We will announce our final sixteen very soon, but it’s still open, so anybody on the roster can make it.”

USC’s NCAA Tournament campaign begins with a Dec. 4 semifinal match against the winner of a quarterfinal game between Long Beach State and UC Davis. The semifinal action starts at 2 p.m. at UCLA’s Spieker Aquatics Center.