No longer perfect: Men’s water polo suffers first loss to Stanford

Sophomore driver Jacob Mercep has scored 34 goals in 2018 over 15 games with 11 multi-goal games. (Josh Dunst | Daily Trojan)

After maintaining a perfect record through 17 games, the No. 1 men’s water polo team fell to No. 3 Stanford in a contentious 13-11 battle in Palo Alto Saturday. The Trojans then returned to Los Angeles Sunday, where they bested San Jose State in a 16-5 victory.

In USC’s first match of the weekend, freshman driver Hannes Daube delivered a fourth period boost for the Trojans, netting 3 goals to bring them within 1 of Stanford. With 31 seconds remaining, Stanford delivered the dagger goal to end the contest.

Saturday’s showdown opened with early offensive pressure from the Cardinal. USC freshman goalie Nic Porter came in clutch early in the game with two big saves. In the third minute of the match, Stanford drew first blood. The Trojans responded just seconds later with a 6-on-5 goal from junior two-meter Matt Maier.

The game continued with back-and-forth scoring as the Cardinal pulled a goal ahead several times, but the Trojans evened the score multiple times. At the end of the first frame, the match was tight with Stanford leading 4-3.

The Cardinal gained momentum at the start of the second period, extending their lead by 2 goals. USC bounced back with a goal to make the score 6-4 in Stanford’s favor, but the Cardinal quickly brought their advantage back to 3 with a shot at the near post.

Once again, the Trojans mounted a comeback. Daube scored his second goal of the game and sophomore driver Jacob Mercep capped off a first-half hat trick to put USC just 1 behind of the Cardinal, 7-6. At halftime, Stanford held a 8-6 lead over the Trojans.

The Cardinal extended their advantage in the third frame, opening with a 6-on-5 goal before amassing a game-high 5-goal lead with three minutes to go in the third. An important defensive block from Maier kept out a 6-on-4 effort from Stanford that could have further extended its lead, but the Trojans capitalized on the other end of the pool with a goal. A crucial block and save from USC prevented Stanford from further scoring, resulting in a score of 12-8 heading into the final frame.

After falling short at Stanford, the Trojans returned home on Sunday to take on San Jose State. The Spartans challenged USC in the first few minutes, responding to USC’s 3 early goals with 2 of their own on power plays. Despite the unexpectedly close score at the start of the match, the Men of Troy were able to pull away later in the game.

“We were just having a rough start at the beginning,” Daube said. “But we talked about it in the meeting, started off good in transition, getting some early goals, open[ing] up the lead. And we just kept a positive attitude and kept going from there.”

Junior driver Marin Dasic found freshman two-meter Jake Ehrhardt for a quick tip-in toward the end of the first period. From then on, the Trojans dominated.

USC outscored San Jose State 4-1 in the second period, expanding its lead to 7. Although the Spartans scored 3 second-half goals, they were no match for the Trojans’ offensive effort. Eleven different Trojans put points on the scoreboard, resulting in a final score of 16-5.

Even after a commanding victory, the Men of Troy seek to improve their play for the upcoming games.

“We just need to focus more on defense,” Daube said. “We didn’t execute our game plan [on Saturday], but we have a week to prepare and have another go at it next week.”

The Trojans will make their way back to Stanford for the Mountain Pacific Invitational Friday through Sunday, where they will take on four different opponents in tournament play. Their tournament will kick off against the Air Force on Friday, while their opponents for the following days have yet to be determined.