This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
USC water polo head coach Marko Pintaric has been at the helm of the Trojans’ coaching staff for two years but is in his 20th season working for the program as a whole. A National Player of the Year, All-American, NCAA Champion and member of the Croatian Junior National Team, Pintaric has helped USC earn 14 NCAA titles across both men’s and women’s teams.
In a season like no other, the Daily Trojan spoke with Pintaric on how the coaching staff and the players have relied on each other to make the season as fulfilling and productive as possible.
Daily Trojan: So, following a loss like this [to UCLA] and heading into the postseason, how do you set the expectation for the team in terms of, you know, keeping their head straight and their minds as clear as possible so that they can go into those tournaments, you know, as focused as possible?
Marko Pintaric: Well I mean loss is a loss, it hurts, really hurts immediately after, but … look, every game is you learn, and we are taking this as a learning experience so that was the main thing that we addressed in our immediate meeting. [We] just reminded the girls that we did accomplish our goal that we set before the season, we didn’t accomplish a goal, we didn’t say we want to go undefeated … everybody wants to go undefeated. That’s the greatest goal, but our goal was to secure the best possible way, you know, for the season and that’s number one seed in the conference. We achieved that with the first victory and, you know, what else to address?
So now from the game itself just learn from the mistakes so these mistakes don’t happen, so it’s a great learning tool for us to get better. And that’s what was addressed. And I really know my team; our team is very self-motivated, you know, they are true winners, and I have no doubt this group of women will come out stronger after this.
DT: You mentioned how playing the same opponent two days in a row is really difficult and something that’s unique about this season. How will it be going into the tournaments where they’ll go from day-to-day playing and different opponents and sort of reverting back to what they usually were used to last season?
MP: By now we already saw everybody. And now we have our scouting ready, and we know who our possible opponents are. And so to that extent, it’s easier to get ready for one team for that first game and then you’d kind of try to make adjustments for the second game. So in terms of game preparations for us coaches, it’s easier to play and get ready for one opponent playing two games. It’s just hard mentally to win two games in a row, you know.
That’s what I’m noticing, that’s my just personal note, so it’s learn and tell, but in a tournament, it’s harder right now because, based on the rankings, you might play against two possible opponents so for your first game you have to get ready for two, and so for us coaches we are getting ready to scouting reports and we are getting ready to win it all. So now that first opponent is a bit tricky, and then second opponent is really hard to predict because [in] that other bracket, you really don’t know who’s going to come out victorious. So, again, it’s got to be more of, getting ready, watching videos for the first possible two opponents, and then you go one game at a time.
DT: How do you see underclassmen such as [freshman 2-meter] Hannah [Meyer] and [freshman driver] Julia [Janov] contributing to this tournament considering their performances in the past season?
MP: They’re learning, they’re adjusting. Reminder, it’s very unfair, you know, for a freshmen class to kind of get them into this situation because of [the coronavirus] and, you know, lack of preparation in [the] offseason. But the girls are doing great, I mean, they’re really learning, and they’re adapting, day by day, week by week, and I really envision them to play in regular rotations and earning, you know, significant playing time during this weekend because their playing time is actually giving us a great competitive advantage. So, the expectations are great, and I am pleased with their performance, even though, you know, we lost the second game.
DT: So, how is the team now, sitting at No. 1 and heading into the postseason, different or similar from the team that had their season canceled back in March?
MP: This is pretty much almost the same group of athletes, at the core. I mean Maud [Megens] joined us, obviously, and we are missing seniors that graduated from last year that were a big part of the team being successful. Because, you know, those who graduated last season, they stepped into a bigger role and they performed their role — surprising some people but not surprising us as coaches. So, the team, the anatomy of the team … it looks the same but is slightly different, but in terms of hunger — hunger to compete and to win is the same. You know, this is really a special group of women that really hate and refuse to lose, so it was really hard on them yesterday losing this game, but that team, and last year’s team, in my opinion — there’s that same desire.
DT: How did you keep the team camaraderie strong considering part of this season was just online meetings and then you’re already here at, like you said, tough back-to-back weekends where emotions are high and the expectations are even higher?
MP: I mean we, we jumped to activities that we were allowed back to. Back then it was just Zoom meetings and we were trying to be creative with Zoom meetings, try to communicate as a team what can be done. That’s why I think our seniors really stepped in, where they really did not just play a role, a selfish role of just ‘being me,’ and they really thought outside of the box about the possibilities, providing good advice to coaches and the rest of the team … we did organize a series of, you know, Zoom meetings, talks, one-on-one meetings where you talk to the players and bring in alums to have a special guest appearances and just do activities that were permissible in order just to keep the sense of team and team chemistry going, and it was tough. It wasn’t easy. We really struggled and that first day when the team started training together, you could completely feel the difference and that’s why we were so happy that the athletic department and school allowed us to do this, and I’m super grateful and happy that we’re actually competing and playing this season.
DT: What have you taken away from this season as a coach?
MP: I mean every season is different, and it’s a learning curve. I’ve been here for 20 years, and there are no years that are identical … every season is [its own]. So, like I said, this was the first season where we really communicated with seniors to the max, where we really asked for maximum feedback from the group. Because from a coach’s perspective, they earned it, they kept the team together, they came back, when they didn’t have to. And, you know, we’re really taking that into consideration, so this is a learning [experience] for me … I’m listening to the team more than I did as a head coach in my young head coach role … This is a year where we listened to our upperclassmen more, so that’s what I learned differently.