Men’s water polo set to open its season

Junior driver Jacob Mercep was named the NCAA Tournament MVP last year. He also led the Trojans in scoring with 62 goals on the season. (Daily Trojan file photo) 

The No. 1 USC men’s water polo team will travel to Claremont and La Verne this weekend to participate in the 2019 Inland Empire Classic. With a bevy of talent prepared for the season, it is more than likely the Trojans will see some success.

While the tournament marks the start of the regular season for USC, each of its opponents participated in the 2019 Triton Invitational hosted by UC San Diego this past weekend. 

USC will first face off against Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, which is coming off a 1-3 outing at the San Diego tournament. The Trojans will need to put up a strong defensive effort to ward off scoring chances from the Stags’ junior attacker Rob Driscoll and senior attacker Zack Rossman. When the two teams last met in 2018, USC junior goalie Vaios Vlahotasios was able to fend off the offensive drive with six saves and just 1 goal allowed.

The Trojans faced their second tournament opponent, Whittier College, twice last season, beating the Poets 25-4 and 13-2 in part because of multiple goals from redshirt senior 2-meter Sam Slobodien and junior drivers Jacob Mercep and Marko Vavic.

Sunday’s matchup should prove to be the toughest of the weekend for USC as the team takes on No. 4 UC Santa Barbara, which looks to extend its four-game winning streak. After losing consistent top-scorer Borislav Jovanovic, who poured in an impressive 78 goals last season, junior attacker Cole Brosnan and senior utility Ivan Gvozdanovic have stepped up to fill the gap for the Gauchos.  

Last season, USC’s overall record against UCSB improved with two crucial wins, with the second 16-2 victory culminating in 17 combined saves by sophomore goalkeepers Nic Porter and Sam Krutonog.

UCSB’s undefeated run at the Triton Invitational included its first win over No. 5 Cal since 2004. Goals from Gvozdanovic, sophomore driver Nathan Puentes, sophomore utility Connor Moynihan and senior attacker Jacob Halle rounded out the score at 8-5. After this win and another over then-No. 5 Long Beach State to win the invitational, UCSB moved up to No. 4 in the Collegiate Water Polo Association men’s varsity poll.

The Trojans are taking a prospective approach to their Sunday morning matchup, as Porter notes that rosters and strategies can change dramatically.

“We’re not really looking at how we won against them last season because our team is slightly different, their team is slightly different,” Porter said. “They had a very good win against Berkeley over the weekend, so we’re not going to be taking anybody lightly, that’s for sure.”

Rounding out the Classic on Sunday, USC will face Concordia University. The Trojans scored an impressive 73 total points in three matchups last season against the Eagles. Senior Cullen Mooers is taking over as the Eagles’ starting goalie this season, and in this game the USC offense will look to build an early lead.

Although the Trojans were ranked No. 1 in the preseason national rankings, complacency in these early games is not an option. 

“We appreciate the No. 1 seed, but we have to justify that in the pool,” Mercep said. “We are not running away from any responsibility. If we are considered [the] favorite then we’re going into the season excited, as we should be.”

After news surrounding the team this summer centered on the firing of former head coach Jovan Vavic following his alleged involvement in the college admissions scandal, his successor and longtime former associate head coach Marko Pintaric is looking to set a new tone for the season.

“We’re not taking anybody lightly. I always tell my guys, it’s very important to take every game possible as a preparation for any of the games you play, being the NCAA finals, world championship finals, it’s always a way that you practice your preparations,” Pintaric said. “We are getting ready for every opponent the same way, and I’m trying to teach them to show respect to every opponent the same way.”

On Saturday, the Trojans face Claremont-Mudd-Scripps at noon and Whittier at 1:20 p.m. in Claremont. On Sunday, the team plays No. 4 UC Santa Barbara at 10:20 a.m. and Concordia at 1 p.m. in La Verne.