Water polo heads to MPSF Tournament

Junior driver Jacob Mercep’s 2.38 goals per game this season comes in at third in the MPSF conference. Last season’s NCAA Tournament MVP, Mercep will look to make a big impact again this postseason. (James Wolfe / Daily Trojan)

After going 13-4 in the regular season, the USC men’s water polo team will compete in the MPSF Tournament this weekend in Berkeley.

USC enters the tournament as the top seed after going 3-0 against MPSF opponents, but it will have to overcome a number of talented programs to take home the championship.

The team has been playing under a new head coach this year for the first time since 1992. Although he’s been with the program for more than two decades as a player and assistant coach, Marko Pintaric officially took over the head coaching job this past summer, and the team attributes much of its success to his leadership style and approach.

“[I credit his success to] hard work, diligence, a positive attitude and mental toughness,” junior driver Jacob Mercep said. “He’s been a bedrock of our resiliency, and he demonstrated a way for us to fight off all the noise, all the negativity and just keep on doing what we’re doing and what we know how to do, which is play water polo.”

Besides USC, the tournament field includes Stanford, UCLA, Cal, Penn State Behrend and Austin College. While the Trojans may be the championship favorite in the tournament, Stanford is tied with USC as the No. 1-ranked team nationally, UCLA comes in at No. 3 and Cal enters at No. 7. Clearly, the Trojans have their work cut out for them this weekend.

Victories over these opponents will not come easily, but the Trojans have been a dominant force all season and appear to have found a rhythm in recent weeks. They concluded the regular season on a four-game winning streak, and three of their four losses on the season came by just 1 goal. Their other loss came against UCSB in mid-September but USC got its revenge with a win over the Gauchos in early October. 

Despite the team’s success so far, Pintaric said the Trojans remain focused on the task ahead of them.

“There’s always a confidence but there’s always a skepticism,” he said. “That’s just the nature of the coaching job, [but] with the guys all being healthy, I am really looking forward to this weekend.”

The tournament begins 9 a.m. Friday when Penn State Behrend and Austin College play to determine who will be the No. 5 and No. 6 seeds. The winner of that game will play Cal, while the loser will play UCLA later in the day on Friday.

Due to their top seeds, USC and Stanford will begin play in the semifinals Saturday. USC will take on the winner of Cal’s game and Stanford will play the winner of UCLA’s game. Neither Penn State Behrend nor Austin College rank among the top 20 programs nationally, so the Trojans will most likely have to overcome Cal in its own pool for the second consecutive weekend to advance to the final.

If it loses Saturday, USC will play the loser of Stanford’s game to determine the tournament’s third- and fourth-place finishers. If they win Saturday, USC will move onto Sunday’s finals and play the winner of Stanford’s Saturday contest.  

Although the Trojans appear ready to take on whoever comes between them and the MPSF Championship, they know the job is not yet done.

“This is still ‘mission not accomplished,’” Pintaric said. “To be successful in [the] postseason, we have to keep winning.”

The tournament begins Friday morning with the seed-determining game between Penn State Behrend and Austin College, but USC will begin its campaign Saturday at 11 a.m.