Men’s water polo begins postseason

The Trojans head north for the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament.

Junior 2-meter Luka Brnetic extended his goals scored streak with one goal against rival UCLA Saturday. He now has scored at least one goal in 10 straight games, the longest of such streak in his career at USC. (Louis Chen / Daily Trojan)

After wrapping up the regular season last week, No. 3 USC  is set to play in the 2023 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament with a playoff berth on the line. 

Since their bye week, the Trojans (12-6, 1-5 MPSF) have found their stride after a fluctuating season. They’ve claimed victories over No. 8 Cal State University Long Beach (16-11, 2-3 Big West) and No. 4 Stanford (14-7, 2-4 MPSF). 

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USC’s last regular season match came in a hard-fought 10-8 overtime loss to No. 1 UCLA (23-0, 6-0 MPSF). While the Trojans couldn’t avenge their losses to the Bruins, Saturday’s match was the closest margin of the last three meetings (14-10 and 11-2). 

Graduate 2-meter Max Miller noted the team’s turnaround as USC prepares for the tournament.

We’ve grown as a team as of recently. Both our games against Stanford and UCLA went really well,” said Miller in an interview with the Daily Trojan. “Unfortunately, Saturday, we didn’t win against UCLA, but we gave them their closest game so far this season, and they’re undefeated. So that’s good progress.”

Heading into the tournament, the Trojans have averaged 12.4 goals per game with multiple offensive threats to lean on, boasting nine players with double-digit goals this season.

As one of the team’s most consistent scorers, Miller has built a strong resume for the Cutino Award, posting 32 goals to lead all Trojans with 11 multi-goal games. 

Not far behind Miller is graduate driver Massimo Di Martire, another Cutino Award watchlist player who recently celebrated senior day. The Italian native has 28 goals with eight multi-goal games and has been the team’s greatest threat on the perimeter to pair with Miller’s 2-meter work. Di Martire needs just six goals to move up to seventh on USC’s all-time single-season goals list. 

On the other end of the pool, redshirt freshman goalkeeper Bernardo Herzer has had a breakout season, averaging just 8.4 goals allowed per game and posting 1o or more saves in seven games. 

“Our defenses really stepped up a notch from the beginning of the season, and Bernardo has stepped up a lot, too,” Miller said. “He’s been making some really big blocks. So if we just keep that same mentality that we’ve had coming into the season, we’ll be in a pretty good spot.”

The Trojans have had some instant classics with all three MPSF teams this season. With all four competing this weekend, USC will have one final opportunity to see the division’s top talent in one place before it hosts the NCAA Championship in December. 

UCLA’s graduate attacker Rafael Real Vergara has led the Bruins to an undefeated regular season for the first time since 2015. Vergara leads the team and all of college water polo in goals with 56 and is coming off his second MPSF/Delfina Player of the Week. On the defensive end, senior goalkeeper Garret Griggs has averaged just 8.26 goals allowed per game. 

Stanford’s senior driver, Jackson Painter, leads Stanford in goals with 51. Behind him, fellow senior driver Riley Pittman has 49 goals and has been the team’s top facilitator with 35 assists. For the Cardinal defense, redshirt freshman goalkeeper Griffen Price has allowed just 7.89 goals per game, the lowest of the four MPSF teams. 

Finally, the hosting Golden Bears (19-4, 3-3 MPSF) boast the reigning Peter J. Cutino Award Winner, senior center Nikolaos Papanikolaou. While the Greek center has been injured for part of the season, he’s still been a dominant presence, scoring 29 goals. Ahead of Papanikolaou, junior Spanish attackers Robert Valera and Max Casabello have combined for 95 goals on the season, creating a near unguardable 1-2 attack. After a month away with the National team, senior goalkeeper Adrian Weinberg has picked up right where he left off, allowing just 9.8 goals per game.

Despite the short turnaround between games and the uncertainty of who the team will face next, fifth-year Head Coach Marko Pintaric said he believes the Trojans have all the experience they’ll need.

“This is the way the water polo season goes all year long. This is why you play the tournaments early in the season, and it’s why we play in the MPSF Invite,” Pintaric said. “That’s why you train yourself [and] you train the team to prepare for those occasions.”

At last year’s MPSF Tournament, the Trojans defeated Austin College, UCLA and Stanford to claim the title at home. If USC wants to repeat, the veterans must guide the team newcomers.

“We are missing a lot of players from last season, but most of the players here training know what the process is, they know the system, and the most important thing is they show trust in the system,” Pintaric said. “I hope [for] that trend to continue for the younger players to really gain that confidence [from] upperclassmen.”

If USC wants to make the NCAA tournament, it’ll have to show out at MPSF. But if the Trojans’ turnaround is any indication of their standing in the Big Four, then their showing this weekend should make a big statement for a playoff push.

USC will open the tournament against Augustana Nov. 17 at 11:15 a.m. at Spieker Aquatics Complex. 

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