Before sophomore goalie Nic Porter made the life-upending decision to travel around the world to play water polo, he found himself watching dozens of games — regardless of level — to build the intelligence he believes is vital to the success of a goalie.
There was one game in particular that made the choice easier for him.
Porter placed himself in then-USC freshman goalie McQuin Baron’s shoes when he faced crosstown rival UCLA in the 2014 NCAA Championship final. The Trojans were gearing up for a shot to win in overtime, and the score was even for the first time in the game at 8-8. But with 34 seconds to go, sophomore center Gordon Marshall of UCLA made the game-winning point and claimed the NCAA title for the Bruins.
This was Porter’s first introduction to the USC water polo program.
“I was just in awe of how the players were playing,” he said. “I was like, wow, this would be an amazing thing to do.”
Growing up along the Sunshine Coast in Australia, Porter was constantly near the water and in the sun. With a push from a school mentor, he was convinced that water polo was just a natural extension of his upbringing.
“Water polo wasn’t really something that I had thought of until I was about 9 and my sport-gym teacher in Australia kind of said, ‘You’re good at soccer. You’re a good swimmer. Water polo is a great combination of the two. I think you’ll really like it,’” Porter said. “And yeah, I fell in love with it straightaway.”
His parents, by email, described Porter’s gradual acclimation to the sport fondly. He began with close observation and gained what he could from the other, more experienced players.
“Nic has always entered new team environments quite cautiously, saying little but watching, listening and learning the culture before introducing himself,” said Stephen Porter, Nic’s father. “He knew he was one of the ‘new kids’ and he would have to train hard, play well and contribute to the continuing success of the program before he was accepted.”
Porter began as a goalie for the club Sunshine Coast, playing with teammates his own age and getting used to the different facets of the game. He laughs when he remembers one of his favorite memories from that team when he was 12, playing in the state championship and losing every game by about 20 points. It’s not exactly the picture-perfect victory he may have hoped for, but after being chosen for the state representative team following this tournament performance, he was inspired to see what avenues hard work could lead him toward.
He describes a marked difference in intensity when he transitioned to his senior club team, the Queensland Breakers, at 16 years old.
“I was playing with men, with the best players in Australia week in, week out,” he said. “I had to mature very quickly and get used to the highest standard of water polo really quickly, but I think that’s also an advantage too.”
“You get thrown into the deep end, pardon the pun,” he laughed.
Watching that NCAA championship upset for USC did not add to the pressure Porter experienced as he was moving up the ranks of the Australian senior team. Instead, it only solidified his decision to make the trip around the world to join the Trojans in their efforts.
“Yeah, that’s a dream come true right there,” Porter said. “I’ve been fortunate to play in some amazing countries, but to live here in Los Angeles and go to USC and play collegiate water polo — that’s the stuff dreams are made of. I’m so happy to be here.”
Head coach Marko Pintaric knew of Porter during the recruitment process and said the coaching staff’s initial evaluation of him was well-founded and deserved.
“It didn’t change,” Pintaric said of their original assessment of Porter. “He’s a scholarship goalie. And he’s doing a great job improving and constantly dealing with injuries and, you know, correcting getting from being injured to being healthy and then making corrections or not to have a standout performance.”
Porter came to USC with a young goalie group, the oldest being then-sophomore Vaios Vlahotasios. While he created an environment where Porter had to make his mark and break the mold, succeeding by appearing in 19 games as a true freshman, the strength of his partnership with his fellow goalies never wavered.
“Oh, it’s awesome,” said Vlahotasios emphatically. “He’s my best buddy in the pool. Each one of us is pushing each other; I’m making him better, he’s making me better. We share tips because we never know who’s gonna play … It’s a great dynamic.”
And it’s not a dynamic that is exclusive to the goalies. Porter can be seen in the cage cheering for his teammates after a great shot or block, demonstrating his positivity and unique ability to balance his goals with the rest of the team’s.
This companionship is also visible outside of games and practice, as Porter describes the team’s weekend trips to the beach or video game sessions after a long day of classes. Any extra time the players have outside of their hectic schedule is spent hanging out with each other.
“I always have the attitude when I get in the pool that I don’t want anyone to touch the wall ahead of me,” Porter said. “I don’t want anyone to use their legs so that they’re higher out of the water than me. I always want to be the best. I always want to win, and I came in and this was by far the best group of goalies that I’d ever had to compete with, but also train with because we’re teammates first and foremost. So that’s definitely motivating in itself.”
When Porter started in last year’s championship final, he saw himself in former goalie McQuin Baron, who faced the same situation in 2014. Porter came away with a win as a true freshman with 12 saves in the title game. This year, he intends to bring the same energy to the NCAA Tournament in Stockton, which seems to foretell a great performance with 9.57 saves per game this season and a career-high 20 saves against No. 1 Stanford last month.
“We really needed to win that game,” Porter said of their win against the Cardinal. “So to give ourselves the best chance of qualifying for NCAA, and … I was really happy to get 20 blocks, but it was my teammates … that made it a lot easier for me than it could have been.”
Now that the time has come to prove themselves after a rocky start to the season against solid opponents on all sides, Porter sees the Trojans making a strong statement at their 15th consecutive trip to the NCAAs and in future campaigns.
“I’d love to graduate from here with four national championships,” Porter said. “I think that that’s very possible with the team that we have. It’s still quite a young team.”
“We can’t let that youth become our detriment,” he said.