The USC men’s water polo team won three of four games at the Inland Empire Classic this weekend. The tournament was the Trojans’ first regular season matches of the 2019 campaign and took place in Claremont and La Verne, Calif.
The tournament also marked the beginning of Marko Pintaric’s career as USC’s interim head coach. Pintaric is no stranger to USC, however. He begins his new role after 18 years on the coaching staff for both the men’s and women’s teams.
“This was the first weekend of serious games that we had — alumni games were just a test,” Pintaric said. “So we’re incorporating [players from the national team] a little bit and training with them.”
The Trojans played their first game of the season in game one of a Saturday doubleheader against the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Stags. USC rolled to a 21-9 victory, with senior driver Marin Dasic scoring a team high 4 goals. Last season’s NCAA Tournament MVP was not far beyond, as junior driver Jacob Mercep scored 3 goals in the season-opening win.
USC took on another unranked team Saturday in the Whittier Poets in what turned out to be a much closer contest than anticipated. In a 15-9 victory, junior goalie Vaios Vlahotasios helped prevent an upset by collecting 10 saves. Freshman Chris Sturtevant scored a game high 3 goals to lead USC’s offensive charge.
The Trojans then traveled to La Verne Sunday to take part in another doubleheader. The team faced its toughest opponent yet, taking on No. 4 UC Santa Barbara. In a back-and-forth affair, the Trojans could not overcome a 4-goal deficit in the fourth quarter, eventually losing to the Gauchos 13-9.
This was USC’s first loss against the Gauchos since 1990. It had won 55 consecutive games against UCSB before Sunday’s defeat.
“You’re not going to win that many games if you don’t play well on defense,” Pintaric said. “When you try to score on your opponent but give up that many [goals] it becomes tough.”
Gauchos junior goalie Tiago Bonchristiano was instrumental in helping UCSB emerge victorious. With a total of 10 saves, Bonchristiano prevented the Trojans from starting their season 3-0.
This was the Trojans’ first loss since their 7-4 defeat against UCLA in November of last season.
The Trojans proved their ability to put a loss in the rearview mirror by blowing out the Concordia Eagles 27-3. In USC’s final game of the Inland Empire Classic, the Trojans demonstrated why they were ranked No. 1 coming into the season.
“I think the team responded well to the loss,” Pintaric said. “They’re taking one game at a time, and against Concordia, our defense was phenomenal.”
Fifteen Trojans scored at least 1 goal in their win against the Eagles, with nine players tallying multiple scores — including Mercep, who matched his career high with 5 goals in a single match. Vlahotasios saved five shots over three periods, while sophomore goalie Jere Ashby collected five saves in the fourth period alone.
Redshirt freshman driver Bennett Winther provided a memorable highlight by scoring his first career goal, contributing to the team’s third win of the early season.
“It’s a work in progress,” Pintaric said of the team’s performance. “This was our first field tournament where the guys all played well offensively and played good games. We scored our goals but defensively we did not play up to our potential … for that reason, we paid the price against [UC Santa Barbara].”
Though the Trojans didn’t go undefeated on the weekend, the team showed that its championship run last year was no fluke. With a total of 72 goals over four games in the Inland Empire Classic, USC is proving that it is still the team to beat this year.
The Trojans will play their first home match of the season at Uytengsu Aquatics Center Thursday when they take on Long Beach State at 5 p.m.