Top-Seeded USC Men’s Water Polo Looks For 11th National Championship

Courtesy: USC Athletics

2021 NCAA Tournament

Spieker Aquatics Center (Westwood, Calif.)
Opening Round: Saturday, Nov. 27
Princeton def. Fordham — 17-8

Quarterfinals: Thursday, Dec. 2
[1] USC — bye
[2] Cal — bye
Q1: Long Beach State vs. UC Davis — 12 p.m.
Q2: Princeton vs. UCLA — 3 p.m.

Semifinals: Saturday, Dec. 4
[1] USC vs. Q1 winner — 2 p.m.
[2] Cal vs. Q2 winner — 4 p.m.

Championship: Sunday, Dec. 5
Semifinal winners — 2 p.m.


Another strong season has secured yet another ticket to the NCAA Tournament for USC, which boasts the top seed for this 2021 National Collegiate Men’s Water Polo Championship. At 17-2 overall, USC is coming off a third-place finish at the MPSF Tournament and will go straight to the NCAA semifinals — hosted by UCLA at Spieker Aquatics Center — as the Trojans make their 17th straight NCAA appearance and have eyes on claiming an 11th national championship for the USC men.

As the top seed, USC has a direct trip to the NCAA semifinals at 2 p.m. on December 4, awaiting the winner of an opening-round clash between Long Beach State and UC Davis. No. 2 seed UCLA hosts this year’s tourney, and is an automatic qualifier out of the MPSF. In a Nov. 27 opening-round game, Princeton (25-7) beat Fordham (24-6) 17-8 to advance to the quarterfinals to play host UCLA (19-3) at 3 p.m. on Dec. 2, with the winner advancing to the championship bracket to play California (20-4) at 4 p.m. on Dec. 4. In the other quarterfinal game, Long Beach State (22-5) will play UC Davis (18-8) at 12 p.m. on Dec. 2 at Spieker Aquatics Center, with the winner advancing to the championship bracket to play USC (17-2 at 2 p.m. on Dec. 4). The NCAA championship game will be played at 2 p.m. on Dec. 5.

USC started this 2021 season ranked No. 2 in the national preseason poll and No. 1 in the MPSF Coaches Poll. As of Sept. 15, USC moved up into a tie at No. 1 in the land before dropping back to No.  2 on Sept.  22. USC took over as the No. 1 team in the nation on Sept 29 and remained in that spot until moving to No. 3 on Oct. 13. USC pulled into a tie at No. 2 on Nov. 3 before taking sole possession of that second spot on Nov. 11. As of the latest national rankings (released Dec. 1), USC back on top, tied at No. 1 in the land.

NCAA NOTES        
Last year’s finalists, the Trojans are making their 17th consecutive and 36th overall appearance in the national tournament. With eight crowns claimed in the past 16 seasons, USC made history in 2012 as the first collegiate men’s water polo team to make eight consecutive appearances and then added to their historic efforts in becoming the first collegiate water polo team ever to win six straight NCAA titles in 2013. The Trojans are looking to claim their 11th title in 24 years, with the program’s first-ever NCAA championship won in 1998. As a university, USC has won 133 national team championships, including 110 NCAA team titles. USC leads the nation in men’s NCAA team titles with 85 to date.

THE CONTENDERS            
The 2020 National Collegiate Championship involves a seven-team field, with two at-large teams and five automatic qualifiers as conference champions. The top two seeds — MPSF Tournament champion and host UCLA and at-large selection USC — have earned a place in the semifinal round, where they await winners of play-in games. The rest of the field is comprised of at-large selection Cal along with conference champions Fordham (Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference), Long Beach State (Golden Coast Conference), Princeton (Northeast Water Polo Conference) and UC Davis (Western Water Polo Association).

Last season’s National Collegiate Men’s Water Polo Championship was postponed from December 2020 to March 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on collegiate sports competition. No fans were in attendance at the event, which was moved to USC’s Uytengsu Aquatics Center. USC carried a 6-8 overall record into the NCAA Tournament after picking up an at-large berth following an abbreviated and very different conference schedule due to the pandemic. The Trojans picked up an 18-9 win over Bucknell in the Opening Round to move into the semifinals against Cal. There, host USC claimed a 12-10 win over the Golden Bears to step into the NCAA title match against rival UCLA. The Trojans would fall behind early in that one, making up ground late but running out of space as the Bruins claimed the crown with a 7-6 victory. At the end of the event, USC had four players earn All-Tournament honors. On the NCAA All-Tournament First Team were Jake Ehrhardt and Jacob Mercep, with Carson Kranz and Nic Porter picking up All-Tournament Second Team accolades. The tournament marked Marko Pintaric‘s second NCAA trip and first NCAA final appearance as head coach of the Trojans.

BY THE NUMBERS            
On the way into the 2021 NCAA Tournament, Jacob Mercep leads USC’s scoring charge for the fourth straight season with 44 goals to date, followed by Jake Ehrhardt with 32, Hannes Daube with 30 and Marcus Longton with 27. On the defensive end, four goalies have shared time in the cage. Senior Nic Porter and redshirt freshman Blake Jackson have logged the majority of the minutes, with Porter holding 176 saves in 60 periods of work, while Jackson has 28 saves in 13 frames of action. Porter has notched 11 double-digit save performances this year, and Jackson has one. All told, USC’s goalkeeping corps is averaging 11.3 saves per game. As a team, USC has outscored its opponents 276-145 for an average of 14.5 goals per game offensively and 7.6 goals-against per game defensively. The USC defense has held opponents scoreless in eight periods.

ON THE RISE            
Several Trojans have made big moves up the career charts this season. Jacob Mercep leads the way, having risen to take over at No. 4 all-time at USC with 196 career goals as a Trojan. On Sept. 18, both Hannes Daube and Jake Ehrhardt scored their 100th career goals. Redshirt junior Daube now holds 124 career goals, and senior Ehrhardt has 121. On the defensive end, senior goalie Nic Porter has taken over the No. 4 spot in career saves by Trojans, and now holds 652 saves. He’s also now registered 35 double-digit save outings as a Trojan.

USC pinned up three strong performances en route to winning the MPSF Invitational championship in Berkeley, claiming wins over UC Davis (13-8), Stanford (15-13) and host Cal (12-11). USC never trailed on Saturday, hitting the turbo boosters in both games to create some space and haul in two wins. A pair of three-goal surges helped put No. 7 UC Davis out of reach en route to a 13-8 win over the Aggies in the morning. That put the Trojans in the semifinals against No. 3 Stanford, which saw USC hit the gas in the first half with a four-goal rally that built a seven-goal advantage for USC before things tightened up to a final 15-13 Trojan win. USC had the first and last words in the championship game. Ashworth Molthen broke ground on the offensive end to open things up, finishing with a team-high three goals for the Trojan cause. And goalie Nic Porter capped off an impressive performance in the cage with one final save to squash any Golden Bear hopes of forcing overtime. Porter would wind up with a whopping 14 saves in the championship win. The score was tied up seven times, with Cal holding one-goal leads on two occasions in the third frame before USC created some crucial breathing room in the fourth period. Cal had knotted things up at 8-8 early, but USC responded with a booming 6-on-5 finish from Carson Kranz off a feed from Jacob Mercep to go up 9-8. Then, Porter stuffed a Cal 5-meter penalty shot to give the Trojans a huge lift. Mercep catapulted a long-range strike through to make it 10-8, and then Porter notched another save against a Cal power play. On the attack again, Kranz found Jake Ehrhardt for a laser that gave USC its largest lead, up 11-8 with  3:45 to go. Cal would find a quick reply, only to see Hannes Daube get USC up on a 6-on-5 next. He’d finish it off himself, taking a pass from Mercep and burying it to get USC ahead 12-9 with 3:05 on the clock. The Bears carved their deficit down to one less than a minute later, but the USC defense dug in for the final stretch. Two more Porter saves sandwiched a huge field block from Marcus Longton against a late Cal 6-on-5, and USC emerged victorious with the 12-11 decision.

FULL FORCE            
Only two members of the 2020 NCAA Tournament roster are gone, while USC welcomed in a trio of U.S. National Team players — all three already All-Americans with NCAA Tournament experience — who had been training overseas. Those bodies include some heavy-hitters, with USC’s top scorer the past three seasons — Jacob Mercep — back for more and joined by Olympians Hannes Daube and Marko Vavic. Add to that the firepower of National Teamer Ashworth Molthen, a transfer from UCLA, along with senior sharpshooter Jake Ehrhardt, and USC’s attacking power is downright formidable. USC’s danger zone on the left-hander side is markedly deep, with Mercep and Molthen joined by junior Marcus Longton — another proven power on the perimeter.

DEPTH CHARGE            
Even more versatility flows from a batch of Trojans who saw key playing time during their first season at USC. Now sophomores, it’s well known that Carson KranzMax MillerTony Nardelli and Tom McGuire can pack some scoring punch. Also in his second season as a Trojan is grad student Wyatt Barker, who developed into a daunting two-meter presence and is back for more in 2021. More returning skill is seen in Chris SturtevantStefan Vavic and Joshua Waldoch, with the highly anticipated addition of Croatian freshman Luka Brnetic also causing a stir for the Trojans.

LEADER BOARD            
From a leadership standpoint, USC also leans on some stalwarts. Olympian Marko Vavic brings back a breadth of experience from his travels, joining a set of strong senior guidance from Alexander LansillNic Porter, Ehrhardt and Mercep. Porter’s voice is particularly powerful, as he is set to cap up in the cage for his fourth season manning the Trojan goal. The All-American Aussie is the backbone of the Trojan defense and, along with the rest of his Trojan seniors, is determined to finish 2021 with another NCAA Championship ring to go along with their 2018 title.

Nic Porter has some talented young goalies by his side this year, with redshirt freshman Blake Jackson blooming into a contender for significant playing time. Garrett Allen also returns to the cage, with two new Trojan goalies also in the mix in Pepperdine grad transfer Kyle McKenney and true freshman Eric Hubner. Already this season, three goalies have seen their first minutes as a Trojan in Jackson, Allen and McKenney.

Third-year head coach Marko Pintaric has kept the Trojans’ postseason success alive and well, having reached the NCAA semifinals in 2019 and the final in 2020. Pintaric will be looking for his first men’s national championship as head coach at USC, having helped the USC women win it all six months ago. In all, Pintaric has been on the USC staff for nine men’s NCAA titles and six USC women’s national championships since taking on a coaching role in 2001. Last season on the men’s side, he guided the Trojans to a 16th consecutive NCAA appearance, reaching the NCAA final for the 15th time in that span. Pintaric was named head coach of the USC men’s and women’s water polo teams on August 29, 2019, replacing former head coach Jovan Vavic. An All-American and 1998 NCAA champion as a player at USC, Pintaric served as co-head coach for the USC men for the past three seasons (2016-18), most recently helping the Trojans to the 2018 NCAA Championship. His USC coaching career began as an assistant coach to both the USC men and women in 2001. Pintaric stayed in a dual coaching role until NCAA rules for coaching staff sizes changed in 2015-16, prompting a move to a scouting director role with the women while his assistant coaching role continued with the men for the next four years. Starting in 2021, Pintaric has had a full coaching staff at his disposal, with assistant coaches Connor Virjee and Jeremy Davie on the men’s staff.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 men’s water polo competition shifted to the spring and featured a condensed schedule for MPSF teams. USC was ranked No. 1 to open the competition, which comprised three Round Robin events among MPSF teams and a single nonconference meeting for USC against Pepperdine. The Trojans would post a 3-7 record in those MPSF meetings, going on to take third at the MPSF Tournament and earning a 16th consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament. USC would host the NCAA event, reaching the final for the 15th time in that 16-year span. The NCAA title match was a tight one, and USC would fall 7-6 to UCLA. In an abbreviated honor roll for 2020, three Trojans earned ACWPC All-America First Team honors — Jake EhrhardtJacob Mercep and Nic Porter. •

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