It seemed like it was going to happen. No. 1 men’s water polo was primed to make a comeback Saturday against No. 5 UC Berkeley. The Bears led for most of the fourth quarter, but their offense stalled and senior 2-meter Jake Ehrhardt had just completed a hat trick to bring the Trojans within one score, 7-6.
With 37 seconds left on the scoreboard and possession of the ball, Head Coach Marko Pintaric called out an unusual formation, bunching three players on the right side of the pool. The designated play drew an exclusion, and as the clock winded down, the Trojans got the ball into the hands of redshirt senior driver Jacob Mercep. USC’s fifth all-time leading scorer pulled back and unleashed a laser in front of goal — the picturesque game-tying goal at the buzzer. But a Bears defender deflected Mercep’s attempt, and Berkeley handed USC its first loss this season.
“Our plan was to create mismatches and … put [our] best players in the best position where they feel most comfortable,” Pintaric said. “In the last play, I know it looked a little messy, but at the end, our shooters were in a position to score.”
USC fell to 12-1 in a gritty game that was a defensive battle from the first possession. Instead of their usual suffocating man press, the Trojans dropped into a zone to deal with Berkeley’s center Nikolaos Papanikolaou. It worked — the 2020 MPSF Player of the Year went scoreless — but it opened the pool for other Bear attackers. Senior Nic Porter was called into action early and often, saving three shots in two back-to-back possessions in the first quarter.
“Our scramble defense to shut down their last second opportunities really showed a lot of heart and a lot of character from our team,” Porter said. “But, a loss is a loss. It feels like those things don’t really matter after the result, but we’ll take positives from this game, and we’ll move forward.”
The Bears also committed to taking away center forward opportunities. Berkeley was content with sitting back and allowing USC long shots. This strategy paid off, as the Trojans shot 16.2% on 37 shots.
With both defenses locked in, powerplays were the only reliable way to score. Berkeley was an efficient 4 for 7, while USC struggled with only 2 scores on 14 exclusions.
“From the bench, there were a couple point blank opportunities that we passed, that we didn’t want to take,” Pintaric said. “We were holding the ball a little too long. That ball, on 6-on-5, needs to move a little quicker to open up the holes, and we missed some really easy opportunities.”
USC quickly bounced back Sunday in a 17-8 away win against No. 12 UC Irvine. Redshirt freshman goalie Blake Jackson got the starting nod and did enough, saving half of the shots the Anteaters had on target, while junior driver Marcus Longton came up with five steals.
Offensively, USC looked like its normal self. This time out, the Trojans went 7 for 13 on powerplays, including three from Mercep. Mercep finished with five goals and Ehrhardt doled out three assists.
USC will face another test next week when it visits No. 7 Long Beach State. LBSU only concedes 6.6 goals a game, so the Trojans will look to work out the wrinkles in their offense in time for Sunday’s game, which started at noon.