The No. 1 USC men’s water polo team split the difference on the road in the first round of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament at UC Berkeley. With one win and one loss against both No. 5 Cal and No. 3 UCLA, the Trojans had their first taste of the uphill battle to a MPSF Championship title.
This weekend was the first of three round-robin tournaments that will comprise the participating teams’ seasons while limiting play to games within the Pac-12 only. Despite not playing Stanford, who is tied with USC at No. 1, the Trojans still faced fierce competition as they hoped to improve on their third-place finish in last year’s MPSF tournament.
Without three of the USC’s best offensive weapons and junior drivers, including Hannes Daube, redshirt Marko Vavic and transfer Ashworth Molthen — who is playing overseas to prepare for the Olympics — it was time for the squad’s veterans and newcomers to stand up.
And stand up they did, with personal records achieved and multiple exceptional debuts.
Competition started bright and early Saturday morning against the Bears, with the Trojans securing a 4-1 lead in the second quarter with help from junior 2-meter Jake Ehrhardt, senior driver Jacob Mercep, sophomore driver Marcus Longton and newcomer freshman driver Carson Kranz. USC never gave up their lead, scoring four more in the second half and raking up a .600 shooting percentage for a 9-6 finish against Cal.
Head coach Marko Pintaric noticed the efforts of the players, especially the youngest and newest, stepping up early on and contributing to the Trojan’s offensive drives.
“Carson is a freshman, did a phenomenal job for us, and we already knew that he would play a significant role this season,” Pintaric said. “As a true freshman, he put himself in four games against the top-five ranked opponents [and he held] his ground and [contributed] immediately.”
Saturday’s matchup with UCLA, the second of the day, saw both teams bringing their best offensive efforts to the table, with the Trojans and Bruins each getting perfect shooting percentages. USC edged ahead by capitalizing on 4-5 power plays compared to the Bruins’ .333 conversion percentage, along with making 2-5 penalty shots and allowing none from UCLA.
Senior 2-meter Wyatt Barker and Kranz showed up again with two and one goals, respectively. In the second quarter, Ehrhardt sent two to the back of the net to gain back control for the Trojans after the Bruins’ jumped out to an early 2-0 lead. Mercep delivered a career-high seven goals to get USC up to 12-7 final score, becoming the
No. 25 all-time Trojan career scorer with 123 goals in less than three years.
The second day of competition showed the inevitable signs of early-season fatigue, exacerbated by the Trojans only having 10 of their usual 14-player traveling team in attendance due to contact tracing and quarantine restrictions.
Cal was on the scoreboard quickly Sunday morning with four goals in the first quarter along with two 5-meter penalty shots. Both teams had their chances to score throughout the contest, with USC attempting 30 shots and Berkeley putting up 36. The activity in front of net forced junior goalie Nic Porter to match a career-high 20 saves during the game. Despite USC’s more favorable 0.538 6-on-5 conversion rate, they didn’t earn a chance for penalty shots and couldn’t lock in their defensive effort to answer Cal’s scoring runs that gave the Bears the win, 12-9.
UCLA didn’t let USC’s scoring drives slow down their pace in the last game of the weekend. After the first period ended in a 4-3 Trojan lead, UCLA secured a lasting lead with three straight goals from the field and three 5-meter penalty shots. Kranz and Longton closed the point gap to one goal with help from freshman 2-meter Max Miller and Barker, but UCLA held it down with nine in the first half and two to close the game out, 11-8.
The coaching staff and the players reviewed the games and are focusing on improving a consistent defensive effort, a principle that has been the thread through the squad at its best, national-title-winning heights.
“We did have a really bad defensive day as a team,” Pintaric said. “We knew what Cal was going to do, considering the way they played us first day … But then again, water polo is a game of inches, and we give up way too many goals, way too many chances, shots in frame — and this is not the way USC plays defense.”
All three teams at the tournament ended the weekend 2-2, illustrating the difficulty of a season-opener after months of adjusted practices and no play. Pintaric credited the tenacity of the players and the expertise of the athletic training staff to get the squad in the best shape possible without overworking them.
“[It] was to go in cycles to condition players to keep them safe,” Pintaric said. “That was the number one thing; closely monitor our student-athletes, so we bring a physical form to a point that’s set to compete.”
The second round-robin weekend tournament will be hosted by USC on Feb. 6-7. Competitors and matchups have yet to be determined.