No. 1 men’s water polo prepares for NCAA Tournament

Senior 2-meter Jake Ehrhardt holds the ball during USC’s match against UCLA on Nov. 6.
Senior 2-meter Jake Ehrhardt holds the ball during USC’s match against UCLA on Nov. 6. Ehrhardt had 2 goals and 1 assist in the win. (Vincent Leo | Daily Trojan)

No. 1 men’s water polo is headed to its 17th straight NCAA tournament, and it has one very good reason for why it can win it all: mustaches.

Players trickled into Uytengsu Aquatics Center before Tuesday’s practice, sporting smiles and their version of a mustache, ranging from full Mario-style facial hair to light stubble across upper lips. 

The “NCAA mustache” is a tradition that goes back years for reasons some of the seniors don’t even know. But it’s a way for the team to bond before the big tournament that its entire season has led up to.

The Trojans nabbed the top seed in the NCAA tourney, which gives them an immediate semifinal berth. USC will play either No. 4 Long Beach State or No. 7 UC Davis in the semifinal. 

On the other side of the bracket, joint No. 1 UCLA and No. 10 Princeton will fight for a semifinal berth against No. 3 UC Berkeley.

“[We’re] ready. We’ve been there 17 times in a row now. The pressure is always there,” Head Coach Marko Pintaric said in an interview with the Daily Trojan. “This is the postseason, so everything is magnified … We’re looking good, and the team’s looking ready.”

The team enters the tournament with a 17-2 record, both losses coming from a one-goal difference against UC Berkeley and UCLA, and a roster stacked with accolades from this season. 

Two All-MPSF First Team selections, redshirt senior driver Jacob Mercep and senior goalie Nic Porter, lead the charge. 

Mercep scored 44 goals this season to bring his career total to 196, good for fourth all-time in USC history. Porter is also fourth all-time in saves at 652 and will likely move up to third in his last games as a Trojan; he’s 13 behind Kevin Stringer, who has held the record since 1987.

Senior 2-meter Jake Ehrhardt, redshirt junior driver and 2020 Tokyo Olympian Hannes Daube, and redshirt junior driver Ashworth Molthen earned All-MPSF Second Team nods, with sophomore driver Carson Kranz receiving an Honorable Mention for his 20-goal season. These six will be expected to show on the biggest stage this weekend why they’re some of the top players in the country, Pintaric said.

“That’s why you come to USC,” Pintaric said. “[We tell] our recruits, ‘If you’re not ready for these big moments, these big games, this is not the right place for you.’ So our players are always [ready] wherever we play.”

The Trojans have faced both of their potential semi-final opponents UC Davis and Long Beach State this season. 

USC defeated Davis twice in September and Long Beach, 13-9, in October. If the Trojans face the Aggies, Mercep has their number. The lefty from Croatia scored 10 goals against UC Davis, including a seven-goal explosion in the first meeting to tie his USC single game career high. In his last games as a Trojan, he hopes to bring home the title, no matter how many times he scratches the scoreboard.

“It’s like mixed emotions,” Mercep said. “I’m sad, but I’m also excited. Hopefully, we win. That’s all that’s in my mind right now.”

While visions of a title win at rival UCLA’s home pool are intoxicating, the team has been laser focused on the details.

“This whole week has been just a mental preparation for us,” Ehrhardt said. “It’s been a whole season of us training hard every day, conditioning in the mornings and lifting in the afternoons to get our bodies ready. But [now] it’s a lot of detail-oriented meetings for us to get down to the nitty gritty … It’s gonna come down to our belief in our system, which I know we have 100%.”

The Trojans feel prepared to win their 11th National Championship. And of course, they have mustaches. 

Well, not all of them do.

“For me personally, I just don’t think it’s a good look,” Ehrhardt said. “You know, look good, play good. That’s my philosophy going into this weekend … But we’ve got a lot of good mustaches on the team … so I think we got the tradition going [strong.]”

Not everyone on the team may be on board with the mustaches, but they’re unified under their ultimate goal: a NCAA title. 

The chase for the hardware begins Saturday, when USC and its mustaches take on the winner between Long Beach State and UC Davis at 2 p.m at Uytengsu.