Men’s water polo falls in MPSF tournament

Sophomore driver Jacob Mercep takes a shot against UCLA at Uytengsu Aquatic Center on Sunday. (Josh Dunst | Daily Trojan)

After entering the weekend’s Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Championship as the No. 2 seed, the top-ranked USC men’s water polo team suffered a 10-9 comeback defeat to No. 4 Cal before falling to No. 2 UCLA 7-4 in the third-place match. The Trojans finished their season with a 28-3 record.

Given their poor MPSF tournament finish, the Trojans were uncertain if they would advance to the NCAA Championships in December. But, on Sunday evening, it was announced that the Trojans earned an at-large berth in the tournament, advancing along with UCLA and Stanford. Their next match will be on Dec. 1 against the winner of an opening round game.

As a top-two seed, USC had a first round bye in the tournament. Cal dominated its first match on Friday, putting up 27 goals against Austin College. Coming in as the fourth-ranked team in the NCAA, Cal needed a victory against USC Saturday to have a chance at one of the MPSF’s three NCAA tournament spots.

Saturday’s showdown began with Cal answering each of USC’s four early finishes. Freshman driver Hannes Daube, who was recently named the MPSF Newcomer of the Year, put up 2 goals to lead the Trojans’ first quarter attack.

The Trojans extended their lead to 2 goals by halftime. Both teams hit the post several times, keeping the game tight. Once again, Cal answered each Trojan strike to remain within 2 entering the final frame.

Cal dominated the fourth quarter from the start, scoring within the first minute and then tying the game up a couple of minutes later. A series of missed shots by both teams locked the score at 9-9 until Cal broke the silence with six seconds left on the clock.

Saturday’s loss to Cal snapped an 11-game winning streak for the Trojans and marked their first home loss this season. In their previous meeting two weeks before, the Trojans defeated the Bears 13-7.

“We thought we were just going to take off in the third and fourth quarter,” sophomore driver Jacob Mercep said. “It seemed that physically we were kind of down, which we didn’t expect.”

Cal came into the tournament as an underdog, but its win carried major implications for the Trojans’ NCAA playoff bid, heightening the stakes for Sunday’s third-place game against UCLA.

“If we don’t win [against UCLA], then we’re kind of on the edge,” Mercep said before the game. “Shall we, or shall we not go to NCAAs?”

Unlike the early shootout of Saturday’s match, Sunday’s clash highlighted the defensive efforts of both teams early on. UCLA’s redshirt junior goalie Alex Wolf, an All-MPSF First Team selection, had six saves in the first period to rob the Trojans of early opportunities. Freshman goalie Nic Porter, the MPSF leader in goals allowed per game, had three saves of his own to contribute to a first quarter shutout.

Mercep delivered a blast to put the Trojans on the board in the fifth minute, but UCLA responded with a 3-goal surge at the outset of the second frame. Sophomore attacker Chasen Travisano scored 2 goals for the Bruins, allowing UCLA to gain momentum.

However, UCLA’s offense was not finished, adding 2 more goals to finish the half with a 5-2 advantage. Despite this margin, the Trojans were confident that they were still in the game.

“[We discussed] just keeping calm and playing our game,” junior 2-meter Matt Maier said. “The game was definitely not over. It was far from over.”

Although the Trojan defense was solid in the second half, allowing just 2 scores, their offensedid little to close the gap. The result was a 7-4 victory for the Bruins.

Despite leading the MPSF with an average 16.3 goals scored per game, the Trojans were held to just 4 goals in Sunday’s match. While USC took 29 shots to UCLA’s 28, its offense struggled to finish as it faced UCLA’s seasoned keeper in Wolf.

“We just didn’t play up to the standards we set for ourselves,” Maier said. “We’ll work on that for sure and get better at it.”