Men’s water polo prepares for NCAAs

USC finished strong and won the MPSF Tournament to earn an automatic bid.

Senior 2-meter Max Miller leads USC in scoring with 43 points this season, scoring at least one goals in 18 games and more than one in 14 games. Miller has been a powerhouse in goals per game, with a season-high of seven. (Ethan Thai / Daily Trojan)

The season seemed over in October, but it might be a December to remember for men’s water polo.

In the span of eight October days, the Trojans (15-6, 1-5 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) lost three straight conference matchups to bring their MPSF record to 0-4, only their second losing streak of three games or longer since 2002. The situation looked equally dire at the end of the regular season, with the Trojans losing to UCLA (24-2, 6-0 MPSF) to clinch the program’s worst conference record since 1991.

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But now, a mere month and a half after their rough patch, the Trojans are sitting at the No. 1 spot in the most recent Collegiate Water Polo Association rankings as they prepare for the NCAA Tournament this weekend, their 19th straight appearance in the tournament. After that dreadful winless drought, USC has gone on a 5-1 run, as the Trojans earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament by winning the MPSF Tournament in dramatic fashion.

“I’m not surprised, I knew what our team could have done from the beginning of the season,” said senior 2-meter Max Miller in an interview with the Daily Trojan. “We just needed to get it all together. But once we came together and decided we really wanted to work for it, we started seeing some good changes and started going uphill from there.”

The real low point for the Trojans was at the back end of their losing streak, when they lost to UCLA 11-2. 

“We weren’t having too many of the tough conversations of actually getting together and talking about issues,” Miller said. “So at one point in the season, we just decided to start actually meeting and going over certain things that we saw as problems and starting to fix them on our own.”

Those meetings paid off, as USC avenged its nine-goal loss, along with two other defeats at the hands of the Bruins, and handed UCLA its first loss of the season in the semifinals of the MPSF tournament to vault the Trojans into the finals.

And now, USC seems like a changed team from the one with the early-season struggles.

“There’s never a specific point, but there’s just a day that you go out there on the field — maybe it’s during a game or maybe during practice — and you feel like everybody’s playing for each other,” said redshirt freshman goalie Bernardo Herzer. “Everything clicks and you just go.”

With the automatic bid from the MPSF finals win over UC Berkeley (21-5, 3-3 MPSF), USC earned the No. 3 seed for the NCAA Tournament, despite beating both of the two teams seeded above them less than two weeks ago: Cal and UCLA.

“With the way that the season went, I think that it’s a fair seeding,” Herzer said. “Obviously [we] would have liked to see maybe the two or one seed, [it] makes it a little easier at the start. But it’s always nice to have a maybe harder warm-up game to get ready for that next one, and we’re super excited for that.” 

The Trojans will start the eight-team tournament with a matchup against San Jose State (13-9, 4-2 West Coast Conference) this Friday. Similar to USC, San Jose State had a strong finish to the season as the Spartans are 8-1 in their last nine games.

As such, USC is not taking its first-round opponent lightly, particularly considering San Jose State’s No. 8 rank in the country.

“At this point right now, I’m not even talking to my players about winning a National Championship,” Head Coach Marko Pintaric said. “Obviously it’s a final goal. Our focus is all on to our next opponent and the next opponent, then the next opponent. So that’s the way you approach these last three games of the season because this is the way this type of a tournament is.”

Luckily for USC, it has a wealth of experience and prowess in these types of situations. Pintaric alone has been involved in all 10 of USC’s National Championships in men’s water polo — nine on the staff and one as a player himself.

Most current Trojans have NCAA Tournament experience, albeit none of them have experience winning a title. In each of the last three seasons, USC has fallen in the NCAA title match by one goal — once to UCLA and twice to UC Berkeley.

“We’ve fallen short in the last few years, always being in the final,” Herzer said. “I think just closing out the game. We’ve been up in previous championships and really committing to closing games would be, I think, what we need to do.”

The Trojans will try to now get over that final-game hump, and they get to do it in front of a home crowd: USC is hosting the entire NCAA Tournament at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center.

The last time USC played host was for the 2020 tournament — which was played in March 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic — one of the years the Trojans fell in the finals. The few remaining members of that squad are hoping to avenge that loss and bring home another National Championship.

“We played [at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center] my freshman year at NCCAs and we got to play UCLA,” Miller said. “We might get the chance to play them in the finals again, so hopefully we can win over them this time.”

The Trojans begin their quest for an 11th National Championship Friday at 6 p.m. against San Jose State at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center. If USC advances, it will play in the semifinal match Saturday at 4 p.m., with the NCAA title match Sunday at 3 p.m.

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