Water polo faces huge weekend

Sophomore 2-meter Jake Ehrhardt and USC will face two tough opponents in Stanford and San Jose State this weekend at home. (Catherine Liang | Daily Trojan)

As the end of the season draws near, the No. 7 USC men’s water polo team will face a crucial weekend double-header against No. 1 Stanford and No. 12 San Jose State.

On Saturday’s Senior Day, the Trojans will face top-ranked Stanford for the first time since they bested the Cardinal at the 2018 NCAA Championship. The match also marks the first of the three Mountain Pacific Sports Federation conference games the Trojans will play to close the regular season.

Stopping Stanford’s momentum going into the match will undoubtedly be one of USC’s most difficult challenges so far this season, as a narrow win over No. 5 Pepperdine brought the Cardinal’s winning streak to 10 games. Stanford has only beaten the Trojans seven times when they’ve played at USC, but key players on this year’s roster will provide one of the toughest tests yet.

USC’s practices leading up to the match have focused on slowing those standout players. 

“We’re going to continue with watching the games until Saturday,” sophomore 2-meter Jake Ehrhardt said. “And you know, they’re definitely a really good team, they have a great center in [redshirt junior 2-meter] Ben Hallock, and they have some guys on the perimeter that [are] also good players too. So we’re gonna have to get ready and figure out how to play a good game with them.”

Hallock has turned heads with his performance this season, leading the MPSF conference with 48 goals so far. 

Stanford’s defensive foundation is strong, too, with senior goalie Andrew Chun picking up an average of 8.87 saves per game. These players are on the Trojans’ mind, but the Cardinal’s talent does not faze them.

“The whole focus is to play the defense and stop their best players,” head coach Marko Pintaric said. “And obviously [Hallock] is … the backbone of the team that everything surrounds and we have ways to stop [him], and we worked on our options, and we’ll see how that works.”

The game will be preceded by an event to honor the team’s departing players as senior driver Marin Dasic, redshirt junior driver Troy Furniss, redshirt junior utility Luka Karaman, senior 2-meter Matt Maier and redshirt senior 2-meter Sam Slobodien all prepare for their final home games. 

The Trojans won’t have much time to rest, as the weekend’s second matchup against San Jose State takes place the next afternoon. The Spartans will face No. 5 Pepperdine on Saturday before they head to USC. The Trojans are 7-0 all-time against SJSU, and this weekend is purported to be an extension of that streak.

But USC has some improvements to make after a 13-12 loss to the Waves two weekends ago. Sophomore driver Hannes Daube, Ehrhardt and Dasic stepped up, however, with 4, 3 and 2 goals respectively. Freshman driver Chris Sturtevant, redshirt junior driver Luke Wyatt and Maier each tacked on a goal, filling the gap left by junior driver Jacob Mercep’s injury. 

The Trojans did only allow 10 exclusions and sophomore goalie Nic Porter recorded an impressive 13 saves, but a 0.571 power play percentage and a 0.406 shooting percentage along with a third-quarter revival from Pepperdine left the Trojans with another loss on the road. 

Pintaric will plan the starting lineup in anticipation of Mercep’s return and the back-to-back games in a manner that prioritizes the team’s health. 

“It’s a constant communication between all of us to keep players outside of the red zones so they don’t get injured again,” Pintaric said of the game preparations. “So we plan on doing this this weekend and we will try to maximize our success. And at the same time, keep in mind the health of our players.”

The Trojans will take on Stanford Saturday at 1 p.m. and San Jose State Sunday at 1 p.m. Both games will be held at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center.