Water polo looks to repeat as champs

Junior driver Jacob Mercep — the MVP of last year’s NCAA Tournament — leads the Trojans with 43 goals in 18 games this season. (James Wolfe / Daily Trojan)

The USC men’s water polo team is preparing to compete in its 15th straight NCAA Tournament this weekend. In their previous 14 trips, the Trojans captured eight national championships. Overall, USC has made 34 appearances in the NCAA Championships.

Coming off a season in which the team won its 10th national championship, the Trojans hope to make it to the mountaintop for the second straight year when they compete in Stockton, Calif. starting Thursday. 

Last season, the Trojans were one of the best teams in the nation, compiling a record of 30-3 and taking down Stanford in a nail-biter to win the national championship. It was almost as if the team was unbeatable during the 2018 regular season, having only lost one game.

On the other hand, this season has not been exactly what USC hoped for. With five losses this season, the Trojans have their worst record since 2015. However, not all hope is lost; the team has been on a hot streak of late and is currently ranked No. 2 nationally.

Much of the team’s recent success can be attributed to star junior driver Jacob Mercep, the team’s scoring leader with 43 goals. 

This is good news for a team that was once ranked as low as No. 7 this season. Having won five of their last six games, the Trojans hope to continue their momentum into the NCAA Tournament.

USC’s record is not necessarily an accurate representation of its performance, as all five of its losses have been a difference of four goals or less. The Trojans also have a perfect conference record and went undefeated at home for the first time since 2016.

“I’m trying to just help my teammates get through it, have everybody focused and on the same page,” said senior 2-meter Sam Slobodien. “I know if we work together and play well, we’ll do our best and we’re gonna end up winning.”

Slobodien has been a strong player for the Trojans all season long. The 6-foot-4 All-American has 25 goals on the season, good for fifth on the team. As one of the captains of the team, he hopes to maintain that same mindset as the team prepares for another tournament run. 

“We’re going to give  the same preparation we give every week,” Slobodien said. “But there’s always that extra little edge you have going into the finals.”

Having spent 18 previous years on the coaching staff, Marko Pintaric took over head coaching duties this season, as well as head coaching duties for the women. 

In Pintaric’s first full season as head coach, the Trojans have outscored their opponents 254-179 with an offense generating 13.37 goals per game. Moreover, USC’s defense has kept its opponents to fewer than 10 goals per game. Pintaric has definitely not disappointed at the helm of one of the best water polo programs in the country.

The NCAA Tournament consists of seven teams and includes a majority California field: Pepperdine, UC Davis, Pacific and Stanford are all participating. USC defeated Stanford earlier this season but  lost to Pacific and Pepperdine in one-score games.

If the Trojans hope to make it to the national championship game, they will have to beat Bucknell and then take on Stanford. The Cardinal, who hold a 19-2 record this season, will not be an easy out. But with players like Slobodien and Mercep, the Trojans are staying confident as they prepare for this weekend.

“I feel confident,” Slobodien said. “Obviously I hope we come out with a natty so that’s how I always feel. Everybody always goes to bed every night thinking about it, then you wake up thinking about it.”

The Trojans will start the tournament on Thursday when they take on the Bucknell Bison in a 1 p.m. tilt in Stockton, Calif.