USC falls to Cal in home opener

The Trojans took their first loss of the season to Cal, 12-5, Saturday afternoon.

Junior 2-meter Luka Brnetic finished with one goal and one assist in Saturday’s loss against Cal. The Croatia native has nine total points on the season. (Ethan Thai)

No. 2 USC hoped to avenge its loss in last year’s NCAA championship against No.1 Cal in its season home opener this weekend. However, they ultimately fell 12-5 to the Golden Bears Saturday afternoon at Uytengsu Aquatics Center.

Both teams came into the match with undefeated records after impressive showings at the Triton Invitational last weekend.

The Bears got off to a hot start, outscoring USC 4-1 in the first quarter. junior attacker Max Casabella exploded in the first six-and-a-half minutes, scoring a hat trick, while USC redshirt junior utility Reed Stemler scored one to keep the Trojans in the game.

Cal kept the pressure on USC in the second period, with Casabella and the reigning Peter J. Cutino Award winner, senior center Nikolaos Papanikolaou, scoring two goals each. Although junior 2-meter man Luka Brnetic and graduate driver Massimo Di Martire both tallied a goal each, the Trojans went into the half down 9-3.

While the Trojans couldn’t mount a comeback, their defense vastly improved coming out of the break. Holding the Bears to only one goal in the third period and two in the fourth, the Trojans were bolstered by redshirt freshman goalkeeper Bernardo Herzer, who had seven saves after subbing in at halftime.

“I’m very pleased with the way Bernardo played,” fifth-year Head Coach Marko Pintaric said in an interview with Daily Trojan after the game. “He kind of stopped the Cal surges during the second half.”

However, while Pintaric drew positives from his team’s performance, he recognized glaring defensive weaknesses that needed addressing.

“We need to really execute our defensive responsibilities,” Pintaric said. “Stop the dominant center like [Papanikolaou] and not put the goalie in a situation to block shots from a closer distance and the high percentage.”

Although the Trojans fell in their home opener, senior 2-meter captain Max Miller was pleased to see the team respond in the second half.

“I’m trying to instill the mentality just to keep pushing,” Miller said. “We’re a second-half team. We like to start fresh at halftime and pretend like it’s a new game.”

Reflecting on the loss, Miller affirmed that the early season loss merely provides the opportunity for growth as the team prepares for the rest of their schedule.

“We have a lot to work on. It’s early in the season, and we’re excited for the grind. We just have to work on our mentality,” Miller said. “They came out a little bit stronger than us today. Going down by one in the first quarter was just kind of hard to come back from.”

Despite last year’s history between the two teams, Miller sees his team’s mindsets for games as universal.

“We always try to keep the same mentality for every opponent that we go against,” Miller said. “Whether it’s Cal, who we just played in the finals or any other team, we try to keep that same mentality.”

On Sunday, the Trojans bounced back with a win against No. 8 UC Irvine. USC took the game 12-10, to go 1-1 on the weekend.

The Trojans are now 5-1, while Cal maintains an undefeated 6-0 record.

USC will next see action when it hosts UC Santa Barbara and Golden West College next Saturday at Uytengsu Aquatics Center at 1 and 2:30 p.m., respectively.

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