Been there, done that: Marko Pintaric uses his years of experience to mentor international players.

A quarter of USC’s student population is international, and yet this community is often underrepresented in the stories that are told at the University. In our special “A Long Way From Home” supplement issue, the Daily Trojan aims to spotlight the perspectives of international students who shape the culture of USC. Find all the stories here.

Before assuming the position of head coach last year, Marko Pintaric had already spent 18 years dedicated to the development of USC’s water polo program. While his transition from associate to head coach brought the stability and guidance the men’s and women’s teams needed in the sudden shift of leadership following the involvement of former coach Jovan Vavic in the college admissions scandal, Pintaric had always provided that sort of direction and mentorship to his international athletes. 

Pintaric made the choice to stay with the program after his successful stint as a student-athlete. He transferred to USC from the University of Zagreb, located in the heart of Croatia’s capital, after playing for the Croatian Junior National Team from 1989 to 1994. Leaving his home — which has an extensive appreciation for water polo and encourages talented young players to skip college to go pro — was not the easiest transition, but it paid off, he said. 

“I liked my story, I loved my experience,” Pintaric said. “I did have a culture shock at first, but my team helped me greatly and I tried to turn those positive experiences and kind of teach the incoming freshmen, especially international students, what I went through. You know, bad experiences [and], in my case, more good experiences, hardships and all that.”

Pintaric was in a good position to get playing time with the recruiting efforts of Vavic, who became an assistant coach at USC in 1992 and took over the program from John Williams in 1999. After competing on the international stage as a member of a four-time national championship-winning club in the former Yugoslavia, Vavic was prepared to start building up the international talent that USC is now known for drawing. 

Former USC water polo player Marko Pintaric stayed with the program to coach young talent from around the world.

In two seasons as a starter, Pintaric racked up 103 career goals, with 59 in his 1997 season alone. He then earned National Player of the Year in 1998 for his part on the NCAA Championship team. Pintaric credits the success of his team — and the generations of USC teams to follow — to the different kinds of talent that are welcomed to the University, both international and domestic. 

“It’s about creating a good team atmosphere and for everybody to feel welcome and that’s what we’re trying to provide: trying to treat every player the same,” Pintaric said. “My experience as being a foreign student-athlete and competing [is], in my opinion, very valuable because I can relate to them because I know what they went through.”

While Pintaric has compiled game plans and techniques he learned from playing in Croatia for his players at USC to incorporate, both he and associate head coach Casey Moon recognize the diverse playing styles that have come from different international players on the roster. 

“In regards to water polo, just their international experience, they get to play top-notch water polo against the best players in the world,” Moon said of the unique contribution international players make when deciding to play at USC. “Especially in three of the countries — in Holland, in Spain, in Australia — water polo is so up-and-coming, and they have such a big, big pool of athletes that they are obviously competing against. This is [an] invaluable experience that they get to bring and show.”

Senior utility Maud Megens, sophomore driver Alejandra Aznar and sophomore 2-meter Tilly Kearns represent the water polo culture of the countries listed by Moon, respectively. They attempted to make their run for the 2020 Summer Olympics before the Games were postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

You always feel that you have to give

something back to these men and

women because they’re trying so hard

to compete not only for this University,

but for their own countries as well.

Associate Head Coach

Despite the Games being moved back, Aznar was more than appreciative of the support that Pintaric and Moon provided for her to get the training experience necessary to compete for Spain at the highest level.

“It’s hard but I’m very grateful to have it,” Aznar said in an email to the Daily Trojan. “It will be a lifetime learning and worth it. [It’s] one of the reasons that makes it attractive, being able to combine both and having people around helping to achieve academic and sports goals.”

Kearns also said Pintaric’s coaching has allowed her to develop a more refined game style that has given her an advantage when playing with the Australian national team.

“It’s a lot more structured in the U.S. — I had never been exposed to the amount of thinking and studying required for each and every game,” Kearns stated in an email to the Daily Trojan. “Back home we would just grit it out till the final whistle, but in the collegiate system you need to have every team and its players’ tendencies memorised to be successful.”

On the men’s side, last season boasted the talents of redshirt junior utility Luka Karaman, junior driver Jacob Mercep and senior driver Marin Dasic, the latter two of whom were members of the Croatian Junior National Team and made appearances at the FINA Junior World Championships. 

Dasic said the international experience both Pintaric and former head coach Vavic displayed was what solidified his decision to attend the University.

“I think it was the coaches — I would say I knew I wanted to play [for] someone who has a similar background [in] water polo as me,” Dasic said. “And I think there was no better combination than Jovan and Pinta to be a part of here in [the] U.S. … And I actually did not think about going anywhere else. I did talk a little bit with some coaches, but I knew I wanted to end up here because of them. And I think that was my good chance to come here and continue playing good water polo as I always wanted.”

The dedication and thought that goes into a decision like committing to play at USC, especially when it might mean giving up a spot on a professional team for four years or more, is not something that the coaches take lightly. 

“You always feel that you have to give something back to these men and women because they’re trying so hard to compete not only for this University, but for their own countries as well,” Moon said. “And they need to balance [a lot] — so much is on their plate.” 

Pintaric also factors in the pressures that both international and local athletes might be facing in addition to practices, including adjusting to a new environment, forming friendships and keeping up with schoolwork. He remembers the sort of rigor the athletes have to manage every day from his time as a student. 

Sophomore goalie Nic Porter, who came to USC from Australia in 2018, said he is appreciative of being able to turn to his coaches for foundational support. 

“USC is, in my opinion, the best possible place for me to be right now,” Porter said. “In terms of the facilities that we have, the coaches we have, the players that this program brings in are some of the best young players in the world. And so for me to be able to train with them and learn from our coaches each and every day for four years is only going to make me into the best possible goalie that I can be.”

The USC women’s team also hosts some of the best young players in the world. While the team lost Megens, Aznar and Kearns for the season as they trained with their respective countries for the Olympics, the remaining players stepped up. Nonetheless, the team felt the absence of three of its top contributors. 

“Most importantly, I think these girls on our team now are wanting them to come back,” Moon said. “It’s much bigger than water polo here. We truly have a family sense and relationship building, and those are their sisters that [are] gone for a whole year. 

“Now obviously, they communicate with them,” he added. “But for them to be back here on campus and be with us every day, I think it’ll just change the dynamic of our team for the better.”

That team dynamic and the ultimate goal of getting a championship ring doesn’t falter when new players come in from outside the U.S. Even players from just outside the coveted Southern California water polo region are trained completely differently from those in USC’s immediate vicinity. Pintaric’s experience helps consolidate these styles to create the Trojans’ near unstoppable level of play. 

“Like I always, always said, we are getting so many different players from so many different places, and in terms of water polo, in terms of language, everybody speaks their own foreign water polo language,” he said.

Moon and Pintaric, who has now spent more than half his life in the U.S., recognize that there is a certain draw to USC that allows it to take hold in the minds of burgeoning players when they make the life-altering decision to move across the world to train while earning a degree.

“I think that the dynamic of college sports here in the States, there’s nowhere like it in the world for us to get challenged in the classroom as well as get challenged in the pool,” Moon said.

Read more about how international students adjust to USC here.