Men’s water polo enters 2018 season ranked No. 2

Two-meter man Matt Maier earned an All-America Honorable Mention and an All-MPSF Honorable Mention last season. (Emily Smith | Daily Trojan)

One year after playing in the national championship, the USC men’s water polo team returns  with high expectations once again, despite fielding an extremely young roster.

Last December, the Trojans managed an impressive NCAA tournament run featuring a dramatic come-from-behind victory in the national semifinals against Cal. Following an improbable 12-11 victory over the Golden Bears, the Men of Troy lined up against crosstown rival UCLA with the national championship on the line. Despite a strong start, the Bruins proved to be too much for USC as the Trojans fell 7-5 and UCLA took home its 11th title in school history.

Eight months later, the Trojans now look forward to a new season with high hopes. Following the 2017 title run, the USC men’s team lost 10 seniors including starting goalie McQuin Baron, USC’s all-time saves leader, and driver Blake Edwards, who ranks ninth on USC’s all-time scoring list.

Replacing Baron and Edwards will be difficult, but USC has a strong crop of young talent that can help fill the gaps. Leading the way is sophomore driver Marko Vavic who paced the team in scoring with 51 goals in 2017. The son of coach Jovan Vavic, Marko Vavic was also selected to play on the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team alongside Trojans McQuin and former driver Thomas Dunstan.

Aside from Marko Vavic, the Trojan defense is still very much a work in progress. With McQuin gone, only redshirt freshman Matt Moran-Flores returns from last season’s roster and will battle four true freshmen for the job. His biggest competitor will likely be Sam Krutonog, a Harvard-Westlake graduate and All-CIF First Team pick. Krutonog is a member of the U.S. Cadet National Team and has earned high praise from Jovan Vavic as “a student of the game [with] poise under pressure.”

Looking into the team’s schedule in 2018, USC will again take on some of the nation’s best squads early. The team’s season opener on Sept. 1 comes in the UCLA Mini Invitational against Pomona-Pitzer, a squad that finished last season ranked 18th in the nation.

USC will find its first elite competition when it hosts Pacific in late September. After winning 11-7 in last year’s meeting on the road in Stockton, Calif., the Trojans will have a great opportunity early in the season to build experience against a projected NCAA tournament team.

Following the Pacific match, the Trojans will go on a long stretch of play through October in which they participate in two tournaments on top of five matches against top-10 opponents such as Stanford, Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara.

While USC will likely have a chance to rematch UCLA at the Mountain Pacific Invitational in mid-October, the two will return to the Uytengsu Aquatics Center on Nov. 10 in the final match of the regular season. Hot on the heels of a Nov. 3 showdown against California, USC’s match against the Bruins will set the tone for the Men of Troy as they head into the MPSF Tournament the next weekend and eventually the NCAA Championships.

While the team will not host  the finals as they did in 2017, the Trojans will again look to surprise and succeed this year.