Water Polo

USC men’s water polo falls short in tight championship match

The Trojans lost by one goal in the national title game for the second straight year.

USC water polo player Jacob Mercep shoots against Cal

After a heartbreaking one-score loss to UCLA in last season’s national title game, the USC men’s water polo team returned to the pool this year with a renewed energy in pursuit of that evasive 11th title. The team lost just once in the regular season and earned the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The stage was set for a remarkable comeback story.

But instead, history repeated itself. Though USC was ahead or tied for most of the second half, it was Cal that had the final say, taking the 2021 title game 13-12 Sunday at UCLA’s Spieker Aquatics Center.

After a back-and-forth battle where neither team led by more than two goals, the game was tied at 12 apiece in the final minutes of play. It appeared to be anyone’s game until Cal drew an exclusion and graduate 2-meter man Nikos Delagrammatikas found the back of the cage on the power play with just 28 seconds to go. USC’s final shot was blocked, and the Golden Bears bench jumped into the pool in celebration.

“I personally wasn’t experiencing any emotions. I was just thinking about the play and what needs to be done and hopefully trying to get an ejection or a goal,” said redshirt senior Jacob Mercep of his mindset as USC searched for the late equalizer.  “We ran the play that we were practicing for basically the entire last week. It managed to work and we got a 6-on-5, but there were six seconds left on the clock and we didn’t manage to capitalize.”

It was the Trojans’ fourth matchup with Cal this season, and none were decided by more than two goals. USC prevailed in the two teams’ last meeting in the MPSF third-place game, and Cal head coach Kirk Everist said it was his team’s improved defensive effort against USC’s deep roster that allowed it to contend in this one.

“We felt like we just didn’t play our best game defensively against them last time,” Everist said. “They’re going to be able to make shots, guys like Hannes [Daube] and [Jacob] Mercep and Ash[worth] Molthen and [Jake] Ehrhardt, and you really focus on those guys and they’ve got four, five, six other guys that make plays … We needed to reverse that or at least match their energy and try to make a play here or there.”

The Golden Bears’ 13 goals were the most they have posted against the Trojans this season. Fouls were particularly costly for USC’s defense, as Cal capitalized on four of 10 power-play opportunities and made all three of its penalty shots. Three of Cal’s four fourth-quarter goals came during 6-on-5 play or from a penalty.

Although USC went just 2-for-11 on the power play, its veteran scorers kept the game tight throughout. Redshirt junior driver Hannes Daube, who missed last year’s tournament run while training for the Olympics, posted a hat trick and three assists. Redshirt junior driver Ashworth Molthen also had three goals in his first NCAA Tournament as a Trojan.

Despite the disappointing finish, head coach Marko Pintaric expressed pride in his team’s accomplishments this season.

“People don’t understand how hard it is to make it to this tournament and to make it to finals, so I’m so proud of these players making it year after year after year,” Pintaric said. “This is exactly what this is all about: to put ourselves in a position to compete for the national championship.

“I still think that despite losing, the way this team fought, stayed together through COVID and rose back after losing the national championship last year in the final and fought their way through and made it again, that’s why I love this team.”