Water polo set to take on UCI and UCSB

Junior driver Jacob Mercep has been a force for USC’s offense this season, leading the Trojans with 23 goals. (Catherine Liang | Daily Trojan)

No. 5 USC men’s water polo is preparing for two critical games this weekend against No. 13 UC Irvine and No. 4 UC Santa Barbara.

While the Trojans’ season thus far has been packed with road tournaments, the team will have home-pool advantage in its Saturday afternoon match against the Anteaters. UCI left last weekend’s SoCal Invitational with a 1-3 record, including a win over Pomona-Pitzer and losses to No. 7 UC Berkeley, UC San Diego and tournament co-host Loyola Marymount. 

The Trojan offense has been formidable so far this season, with their top three scorers — drivers junior Jacob Mercep, senior Marin Dasic and sophomore Hannes Daube — all posting 14 goals or more. However, UCI freshman goalie Harrison Land, who is averaging 10.3 saves per game, will pose a threat to USC’s scoring effort. 

“Against Irvine, we will prepare to our maximum, to know their matchups, to know the goalie, to know their strengths and weaknesses and then we will approach that game … very, very serious,” head coach Marko Pintaric said. “Because following the scores this year, every opponent is dangerous. [With] our team allowing on average 9 goals per game, [and] then if you have a bad shooting day, that’s an indicator that you can lose to anybody.”

The highly anticipated rematch against the Gauchos will take place the following day in Santa Barbara, giving the Trojans a limited turnaround to prepare and reset. 

UCSB’s momentum has slowed recently, with its undefeated win streak halted this past weekend at the SoCal Invitational due to close losses to No. 2 UCLA and No. 3 Pacific. USC’s upset loss to the Gauchos early in the season, which broke a 55-game win streak over UCSB, is still fresh in the players’ minds, but they are confident that a solid and consistent defense will be the key to avenging the loss. 

“Traditionally, we’ve always wanted to establish our teams as defensive [teams], so obviously this season we’re not accomplishing that goal,” Pintaric said. “And the focus will [still be] to figure out how to, as a team, perform as a defensive unit for a longer period of time, for the whole game, not just showing short brilliant, bursts of defense.”

At last week’s SoCal Invite, goalies junior Vaios Vlahotasios and sophomore Nic Porter saw some action with 11 saves and 21 goals allowed and 27 saves and 19 goals allowed, respectively. In the fifth-place match against Cal, the Trojan defense faltered, and even redshirt senior 2-meter Sam Slobodien’s impressive six exclusions drawn could not make up for the staggering 19 exclusions on both sides. 

The entire Trojan defense will be tested Sunday. UCSB junior attacker Cole Brosnan has racked up 38 goals so far this season, and senior utility Ivan Gvozdanovic posted a personal best offensive effort so far this season against Pepperdine with a hat trick and an assist.

Beyond the defensive intricacies, redshirt junior utility Luka Karaman said having the proper confidence going into the weekend will propel the team forward. 

“It’s always easier to play in front of a home crowd,” Karaman said. “But other than that, no, it shouldn’t change [our mentality]. We still have the same mindset going before every game, and that’s [to be] on top.”

The Trojans host UCI at Uytengsu Aquatics Center Saturday at 1 p.m. before heading to Santa Barbara to face the Gauchos at the Campus Pool Sunday at noon.