2020-21 USC Men's Water Polo Outlook: No. 1 Trojans Eye Title in Unique Season
At this time last year, the waves had long subsided on USC men's water polo's run to yet another NCAA Tournament. It had been 15 years in a row that the Trojans had made a postseason appearance, with eight titles won in that span. But the 2020 men's season will forever have an asterisk by it for all teams — as the coronavirus pandemic caused 2020 men's competition to be pushed back to 2021. Instead of winding down in January after months of intense competition, USC men's water polo is ramping up for a very different-looking season of action as 2021 unfurls.
But don't even begin to think that the different landscape ahead means the Trojans have different goals or different expectations for the competition to come. Tied at No. 1 in the national preseason rankings, Trojans already very much have their eyes affixed on extending that NCAA streak and adding another trophy to their championship arsenal.
"Our expectation is to compete and win," USC head coach Marko Pintaric said. "I'm blessed to be surrounded by coaches and players who are very competitive. When you have that type of group you just keep nourishing that frame of mind. Our expectation is always to go out and compete and win a national championship."
The road to a 2020-21 title starts in Berkeley, as Cal hosts the first competition of the new year on Jan. 23-24. For the Trojans, it's a long-awaited opportunity to see how these months of team Zooms, at-home workouts and eventual on-campus training as a team has shaped and prepared them for longed-for game action.
Pintaric — along with his coaching staff of Casey Moon, Connor Virjee and Jeremy Davie — has some peace of mind in knowing that he has a potent combination of experience, leadership and emerging talent on his roster for the season ahead. Captains Jacob Mercep and Luke Wyatt — both lefties — are the veterans of the bunch, while goalies Nic Porter and Vaios Vlahotasios are both in their third seasons as Trojans. U.S. National Teamer and All-American Jake Ehrhardt comes off a significant sophomore season, while sophomores Marcus Longton and Chris Sturtevant logged a load of experience in their freshman campaigns.
And that's just scratching the surface of USC's prospects for 2020-21.
"I'm impressed with our leadership and work ethic," Pintaric said, highlighting junior Alexander Lansill as an emerging leader for the Trojans. "We also have a very good group of young men joining the team to help us."
With the graduation of two-meter men Sam Slobodien and Matt Maier, USC welcomes the addition of grad transfer Wyatt Barker, a 6-foot-6 center who played at Pacific before coming to USC to pursue a master's degree. He and incoming freshmen Max Miller and Tony Nardelli are also tabbed as new faces in that hole position for the Trojans.
USC's trio of left-handed sharpshooters — All-American Mercep, Wyatt and Longton — are balanced on the perimeter by several more sure-handed gunners.
"We are a very talented shooting group," Pintaric said. "All three lefties aren't afraid to finish. All three are very dangerous. And Jake Ehrhardt has gotten even stronger in that department."
Adding further to USC's offensive onslaught, Pintaric also points to the high-powered scoring potential of Sturtevant, Orestis Apergi, James Kolenda and newcomer Carson Kranz. Kranz and fellow freshmen Tom McGuire and Joshua Waldoch are also tabbed as impact players in their first season as Trojans. This season is a valuable opportunity for USC's young talent, as Trojans Hannes Daube, Marko Vavic and Ashworth Molthen are taking the season off to compete overseas in preparation for the U.S. National Team's work toward the Tokyo Olympic Games.
"With his hard work and water polo IQ, Tom has proven he can contribute to the team, and Josh is right there, too," Pintaric said.
To back up USC's firepower on the offensive end, the Trojans boast a formidable goalkeeping corps. All-American Nic Porter is back for year three, as is Vaios Vlahotasios. That pair shouldered the bulk of the load between the pipes in 2019. This year, USC has three more goalies in line for their first action as Trojans in redshirt freshman Garrett Allen and true freshmen Blake Jackson and Oliver Von Karl.
"We have a very good group of talented goalies constantly competing for that No. 1 spot," Pintaric said. "I'm very pleased with all our goalies' efforts."
All told, USC's experience, balance and preparation will be the keys to riding the waves of this unprecedented men's water polo season ahead.
"We have worked to build this team and the way we function to get as close to normal as possible," Pintaric said. "We are integrating our new players into the USC water polo system and we maintain our philosophy of competing and winning a national championship."