Men’s water polo kicks off title chase

Senior goalie McQuin Baron looks to conclude his Trojan career with a national title as USC begins the NCAA Tournament this week. Austin Paik | Daily Trojan

For the 13th year in a row, the No. 4 men’s water polo team will be competing in the NCAA Tournament, beginning with a matchup against No. 15 Harvard on Thursday.

This year, third-seeded USC will host the tournament at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center. The team has won six titles in its previous 31 tournament appearances and is looking to add to that number this year. The last time the Trojans hosted the tournament, they came away with the trophy. Cal hosted in 2016 and claimed the title.

“The last two or three years, the host of the tournament has always won,” senior goalie McQuin Baron said. “So hopefully that’s the case this year.”

For the Trojans, this tournament is more than just another appearance, as they seek their first national title since 2013 — the last championship in USC’s unprecedented six-year winning streak. After suffering heartbreak in the championship match last season, USC put 2016 out of its mind and started this season with its eyes on the prize.

“I don’t think losing had anything to do with our prep this year,” Baron said. “We just want to bring it home. We’ve kind of just been focusing on the games earlier in the season and what we need to do to win this weekend.”

The Trojans have been preparing for this tournament all season. Coming into the tournament with a 25-3 overall record and winning the MPSF Tournament championship title over UCLA last weekend, the team has the momentum and the desire. However, the players also know they must keep improving before facing any teams this weekend.

“I think it is a big confidence-builder to be able to beat [No. 3 UCLA and No. 1 Stanford], especially by the margins we did,” Baron said. “But looking back at the film, we saw a bunch of mistakes that we can fix and capitalize on this weekend.”

Some of the mistakes the Trojans are looking to fix were from games where victory came after some nervous moments. Though the team hopes to avoid similar nail-biters in the postseason, the close calls actually were a way for the Trojans to practice handling tougher situations and learning how to perform under pressure.

“We have had a lot of close games this year — I think more so than any other year,” Baron said. “We had double-overtime with Long Beach [State], we had a close game with UC [Irvine] and almost lost to them once. So I think the amount of close games and pressure situations we’ve had this year are really going to help us in the tail end of the season.”

For Baron, who is three saves shy of taking the MPSF all-time career saves leader title with 1,055, his final tournament appearance is the culmination of his time at USC. Even with all Baron has accomplished during his Trojan career — from winning the Cutino Award last season to representing Team USA at the 2016 Olympics — the one accolade he has left to add to his trophy cabinet is a national title. But in his last season before graduating, Baron has been pushing himself to continue to improve.

“For me personally, the hardest thing to overcome is that I think this is one of my worst seasons I’ve had at USC,” Baron said. “I mean, if you look at the stat line, obviously not, but [that’s] how I personally felt. I think there were only two or three times I played badly in big games, but that can have a huge effect on you.”

Baron said he was focused on “overcoming that on the confidence side” and making minor adjustments to bring him back to his best. But Baron also said he was still excited to reach this point in the season. For Baron and the other seniors, this weekend will determine the last mark they will leave on the program. The quarterfinal against Harvard also marks one of the final steps they have to take before reaching the ultimate goal  — and the Trojans can almost taste it.

“Every year you’re kind of looking forward to this point, and it’s finally here,” Baron said. “I’m a senior, along with the 13 others, and we’ve been training four years for this moment. It is our last collegiate water polo weekend. Hopefully we make it to the finals and come out on top.”

The Trojans begin their championship chase against the Crimson 7 p.m. at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center. With a victory, USC will advance to face Cal in the semifinals on Saturday. The championship match will be held on Sunday at 3 p.m.