Water polo prepares defense to face 49ers

Sophomore goalie Nic Porter reaches out to defend a shot. Porter was a three-time Newcomer of the Week during his freshman season. (Daily Trojan file photo)

Following its 3-1 run at the Inland Empire Classic this past weekend, the No. 5 USC men’s water polo team will look to improve its defensive effort in its first home game of the season against No. 9 Long Beach State Thursday.

After USC broke its 55-game winning streak over No. 2 UC Santa Barbara in a 13-9 loss Sunday, head coach Marko Pintaric stressed the program’s need to refocus on its next ranked opponent.

“Our priority is defense,” Pintaric said. “We lost our first game against Santa Barbara because we played poor defense. [We] allowed too many goals overall in the first official four games of the season because of poor defense. So our maximum effort will be to tighten up those issues that showed, and I’m looking forward to [seeing] how the guys will respond to that.”

Long Beach State also participated in the Inland Empire Classic, posting three wins against Whittier College, Concordia University and Air Force as well as one loss against No. 8 Pepperdine University to improve its overall record to 6-2. 

The 49ers’ scoring drives are something to keep an eye on, as they have eight players boasting a shot percentage at or above 0.700. Sophomore utilities Matt Morris and Garrett Zaan both collected 7 goals in the tournament, while redshirt senior attacker Austin Stewart racked up an impressive 15 scores. Their performance has not gone unnoticed by USC.

“[We spent] a day and a half watching films, watching to analyze our play over the weekend, to show the good and bad stuff that we did, so we can fix our problems,” Pintaric said. “And [we watched] what Long Beach [State] did the last couple of weeks, so we can make an adjustment and play the best game possible on Thursday.”

USC will rely on a strong group of goalies to counter the offensive firepower of Long Beach State. Junior Vaios Vlahotasios had an impressive first tournament with 21 saves, while sophomore Nic Porter had eight saves and sophomore Jere Ashby had nine saves in his first appearance as a Trojan.

The Trojans are also expected to continue as an offensive powerhouse after strong appearances last weekend from sophomore two-meter Jake Ehrhardt, junior driver Jacob Mercep and senior driver Marin Dasic. With 26 goals total from the three players across the first four tournament games of the season, it is unlikely that their scoring effort will slow down Thursday. Dasic hit a career milestone by passing the 100 goal mark during the Inland Empire Classic.

“I believe nothing is changing honestly,” Dasic said. “It is flattering and shows the work that I’ve put in, but I honestly think nothing should change, and I should just keep going and focus on the games, focus on the next win.”

Dasic also said that while the priority is defense, the team continues to work fiercely on the offensive side in order to outscore Long Beach State’s high-scoring attack.

“We know what to focus on, what we should improve on, and definitely our defense,” Dasic said. “On offense, we kind of executed what we were supposed to, and we scored nine goals [against Santa Barbara], which is also good.”

Last season’s two wins against Long Beach State came at the end of the season, when the Trojans were able to best the 49ers’ combined 14 points with their total of 27. But with a rare upset loss against Santa Barbara in the back of the players’ minds, the team is taking this opportunity to address its weaknesses.  

“We take every game as a test to correct our mistakes and to get the team better,” Pintaric said. “Every game is super serious, as if it’s the most important game of the season.”

USC’s first home game of the season against the Beach begins 5 p.m. Thursday at Uytengsu Aquatics Center.