In a little over two weeks time the No. 1 women’s water polo team will begin their quest for what would be their third NCAA title in the last five years.
The 10-team tournament includes the winners of seven different conferences and three at-large teams. After finishing the regular season 17-1 while being atop the Collegiate Water Polo Association polls for 12 consecutive weeks, the Trojans will likely enter the tournament as the No. 1 or No. 2 seed depending on their performance in the MPSF tournament. This would grant them an automatic bid to the quarterfinals to play the winner of one of the two first round games.
When talking about what it is like to play in the NCAA Tournament, head coach Marko Pintaric noted how mentally challenging the games usually are.
“It’s the postseason, it’s different,” Pintaric said. “The stakes are higher, obviously in the NCAA tournament you don’t have that mental buffer because if you lose then your season is over. And I think that carries an extra mental burden on teams, coaches, and players. There is definitely a different energy and feel, everybody knows that this could be their last game so they are bringing their A-game or the best they have got.”
While the Trojans are the title favorites, the road to the championship will not be easy. Fellow powerhouse programs such as No. 2 Stanford and No. 3 UCLA each look to win their eighth NCAA championship. Even though USC took down the Cardinal in a tight two-game set earlier this year, the Trojans have to watch out for a school that has dominated the last decade with six NCAA titles since 2011. Stanford knocked out USC in five of those tournaments, including the 2019 National Championship game.
When it comes to crosstown rival UCLA, the Trojans know that the Bruins can never be taken lightly, especially after easily handing USC their first loss of the season — breaking the Trojans’ 23 game winning streak — on Sunday. After the Trojans won a tight defensive battle on Saturday, the Bruins came back strong and dominated the second game, winning 13-6. UCLA will enter the tournament looking to win their first NCAA championship in over a decade.
Senior driver and All-American captain Kelsey McIntosh discussed the significance of the tournament’s location.
“The NCAA Tournament is hosted at UCLA, and it’s always fun to play your rivalry team at their house just because the ultimate goal is to beat UCLA at UCLA,” McIntosh said. “But at the same time, two years ago we lost to Stanford at Stanford, so if we can beat them this year and avenge that loss I think it would be pretty special as well.”
McIntosh also discussed the pressures USC faces being consistently ranked the best team in the country.
“We know that people are coming for us — they want to beat USC,” McIntosh said. “That’s everybody’s goal and as the No. 1 team there is already a target on our backs. But we don’t go into the game thinking about how we are No. 1 and the best team; we go in there confident and not cocky because, ultimately, on any given day, any team can beat anyone.”
The 2021 NCAA Tournament selection show will take place on May 3 and the tournament itself will run May 14-16 at UCLA’s Spieker Aquatics Center in Los Angeles, Calif.