No. 1 USC men’s water polo took third place at the MPSF Tournament in Berkeley this past weekend following a 12-9 semifinal loss to No. 4 Cal and a 10-6 win over No. 3 UCLA.
The Trojans’ tournament finish and 14-5 overall record earned the program its 15th consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament.
USC was the top-seeded team entering the MPSF Tournament after defeating four straight challenging opponents in Stanford, San José State, UCLA and Cal. But the Trojans’ struggles in their narrow win against the Golden Bears would prove to be a harbinger for this weekend’s rematch.
Although Cal ended with a 3-goal lead over USC, the match came down to the final frame. The score was tied eight times over the course of the game, and the teams were tied at 9 with just over three minutes remaining.
That’s when everything fell apart for the Trojans. Cal scored 3 goals in rapid succession as USC misfired on all four of its shots, quickly turning a tight game into a Bears victory.
“I just think we had an off day,” redshirt senior 2-meter Sam Slobodien said. “We get a lot of bar-outs, and we didn’t take the best shots we could have taken.”
After its loss to Cal, USC needed a victory over UCLA in the third-place match to bolster its chances of securing one of the two at-large berths in the NCAA Tournament. The Bruins entered the game with a chip on their shoulder after the Trojans handed them a 10-7 loss in their own pool two weeks prior.
The Trojans’ most consistent performers played well Sunday. Sophomore driver Hannes Daube put up a hat trick, while senior driver Marin Dasic, sophomore 2-meter Jake Ehrhardt and junior driver Jacob Mercep each added multiple goals to the Trojan cause.
Unlike Saturday’s back-and-forth match against Cal, Sunday’s game was a dominant effort from the second period on. The Trojans took a 6-3 lead at the half, and from there, never led by fewer than 2 goals.
Head coach Marko Pintaric said that although the Trojans held a commanding lead for the majority of the game, it still felt like the score was close.
“Believe me, when you’re in the water or you’re coaching this game, it’s closer than it looks,” Pintaric said. “When you play an opponent like that, it’s a game of inches. It can all be decided in one or two bad decisions.”
Although Slobodien didn’t find the back of the net against UCLA after putting up a pair of scores against Cal, he said he was proud to see his teammates produce offensively.
“I don’t really count my goals,” Slobodien said. “I’m more worried about our team, and it was nice to get the UCLA win the next day [after Cal]. Every day, someone new steps up and contributes. And [it’s] just a matter of who, not if it’s me or if it’s one of our top scorers.”
Last year, USC fell in both games of the MPSF Tournament to the same opponents — Cal and UCLA — yet went on to win the National Championship. Despite their poor performance at the end of the Cal game, the Trojans hope they can achieve the same feat this season.
With the win over UCLA, the Trojans knocked the Bruins out of championship contention. Cal also failed to advance on the road to the NCAA title, so the Bears are one fewer obstacle the Trojans must face in the upcoming Tournament.
The Trojans will look to defend their national title up in Stockton, kicking off the NCAA tournament Dec. 5 against the winner of an opening round game between Harvard and Bucknell. A successful debut match would pit USC against Stanford in a rematch of last season’s title game.