USC Men’s Water Polo Sets Up For 16th Straight NCAA Appearance
2020 NATIONAL COLLEGIATE CHAMPIONSHIP
March 18, 20-21 (Uytengsu Aquatics Center)
Opening Rounds | Thursday, March 18
1 p.m. — UCLA vs. California Baptist
4 p.m. — USC vs. Bucknell
Semifinals | Saturday, March 20
2 p.m. — Stanford vs. UCLA/CBU winner
5 p.m. — California vs. USC/Bucknell winner
Championship | Sunday, March 21
2 p.m. — Championship Game
USC is in familiar territory in several ways this week, as the Trojans are making an unmatched 16th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament. USC also has been tabbed as host of this National Collegiate Men's Water Polo Championship, which was postponed from December 2020 to this month due to the coronavirus pandemic's impact on collegiate sports competition. No fans will be in attendance at the event, but the waters are sure to be churning with action as six teams splash down at Uytengsu Aquatics Center this week. The Trojans have won 10 NCAA titles and are in the hunt for an 11th this week.
On Thursday (March 18), Opening Round competition is set, starting with a 1 p.m. meeting between UCLA and California Baptist. At 4 p.m., host USC will take on Bucknell for the second straight NCAA meeting between the two programs. Winners from Thursday will step into the semifinals on Saturday (March 20). There, Stanford awaits the UCLA/CBU winner at 2 p.m., with California taking on the USC/Bucknell victor at 5 p.m. The 2020 national championship game will take place at 2 p.m. on Sunday (March 21).
No fans may be in attendance at the 2020 National Collegiate Men's Water Polo Championship due to LA County guidelines, but all games will be available for live streaming at ncaa.com/live with Bill Cohn on the calls. All games also will have live stats available at theFOSH.net. All links, schedule and other information are located at the NCAA TOURNAMENT CENTRAL PAGE.
Last year's semifinalists, the Trojans are making their 16th consecutive and 35th overall appearance in the national tournament. With eight crowns claimed in the past 15 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. USC made 14 consecutive trips to the NCAA final from 2005-2018. The Trojans are looking to claim their 11th title in 23 years, with the program's first-ever NCAA championship won in 1998. As a university, USC has won 130 national team championships, including 107 NCAA team titles. USC leads the nation in men's NCAA team titles with 85 to date.
The 2020 National Collegiate Championship involves a six-team field, with three at-large teams and three automatic qualifiers as conference champions. The top two seeds — MPSF Tournament champion Stanford and at-large selection California — 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 and host USC and at-large selection UCLA along with conference champions Bucknell (Collegiate Water Polo Association) and California Baptist (Western Water Polo Association). Host USC is making its 16th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament, defending champion Stanford is making its third consecutive trip, and Bucknell is back for the second straight season. The two 2018 finalists are the only holdovers from last year's NCAA field. California's last appearance was 2017; UCLA last made it in 2018; and California Baptist is making its first appearance in program history.
THIS TIME LAST YEAR
In 2019, USC carried a 14-5 overall record into the NCAA Tournament after picking up an at-large berth as the Trojans sought to defend their 2018 championship crown. The 2019 Trojans started out with a 15-9 win over Bucknell in the Opening Round to move into a semifinal bout with Stanford in Stockton. A rematch of the 2018 NCAA Championship game, USC would dig out of a four-goal hole to force overtime with the Cardinal, but the Trojans saw their valiant comeback effort come to a stunning stop when top-seeded Stanford scored a golden goal to win it 15-14. USC had two Trojans finish on the NCAA All-Tournament honor roll, with Jacob Mercep and Nic Porter both named to the First Team. Mercep scored five goals in the semifinal game, and Porter made 15 saves. The tournament marked Marko Pintaric's first NCAA trip as head coach of the Trojans.
USC started this 2020-21 season ranked No. 1 in the national preseason poll, tied at that top spot with Stanford. After the first weekend of competition, USC was in a three-way tie at No. 2 with Cal and UCLA. On Feb. 10, USC moved to No. 4 in the nation, and the Trojans remain there as of the latest rankings on March 17.
BY THE NUMBERS
As NCAA action gets underway this week, Jacob Mercep leads USC's scoring charge with 36 goals to date. He has scored in 13 games with 11 multi-goal outings as he's climbed the USC career charts to currently rank No. 13 all-time with 148 goals as a Trojan — just five goals away from taking the No. 10 all-time spot. In addition to Mercep, USC has four other Trojans who have scored more than 10 goals to date — Jake Ehrhardt (18), Wyatt Barker (14), Carson Kranz (13) and Marcus Longton (13). Junior goalie Nic Porter, meanwhile, has logged 448 career saves to lift himself into Trojans' all-time top-10, now ranked No. 9. Porter is averaging 11.6 saves per game, having topped out with a career-high-tying 20 against Cal on Jan. 24. He's hauled in double-digit saves in eight games to date. Senior goalie Vaios Vlahotasios capped up for his first full game in the cage against Pepperdine on Feb. 14 and made 14 saves. All told, USC's goalkeeping corps is averaging 11.7 saves per game. As a team, USC is averaging 9.8 goals per game offensively and has allowed 9.1 goals-against per game defensively.
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 to bolster USC's experienced depth charge for 2021.
With the graduation of two-meter men Sam Slobodien and Matt Maier, USC has welcomed 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 new faces in that hole position for the Trojans. Together, that trio of newcomers has tallied 19 goals for the Trojans to date.
USC's trio of left-handed attackers — All-American Jacob Mercep, Luke Wyatt and sophomore Marcus Longton — are balanced on the perimeter by several more sure-handed gunners. Adding further to USC's offensive onslaught, are the high-powered scoring abilities of Chris Sturtevant and Jake Ehrhardt along with fellow returners Orestis Apergi and Alexander Lansill. Meanwhile, newcomer Carson Kranz.and his fellow freshman Tom McGuire have also established themselves as impact players on the attack in their first season as Trojans.
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 freshman Blake Jackson.
Marko Pintaric, who has been part of 14 NCAA championships during his 19 years on the USC coaching staff, is in his second year at the helm of the Trojan water polo program. Last season on the men's side, he guided the Trojans to a 15th consecutive NCAA appearance, taking a sudden-death loss in the 2019 NCAA semifinals to eventual champion Stanford. With the women in 2020, Pintaric had USC ranked No. 1 in the nation when the season was brought to an early close due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 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 a full coaching staff at his disposal, with associate head coach Casey Moon and assistant coach Connor Virjee back for more along with the addition of Jeremy Davie as a student assistant coach.
Trojans Hannes Daube, Marko Vavic and Ashworth Molthen are taking this season off to compete overseas in preparation for the U.S. National Team's work toward the Tokyo Olympic Games.
In 2019, under the direction of Marko Pintaric as head coach for the first season, the Trojans made their 15th consecutive journey to the NCAA Tournament. USC went 3-0 in MPSF regular-season action to earn the top seed at that tournament, finishing third and earning an at-large spot in the 2019 NCAA tourney. There, the Trojans beat Bucknell in a play-in game and then faced Stanford in the semis. The Cardinal would pull off a sudden-death victory over the Trojans, leaving USC with a 15-5 overall record. Six Trojans would earn ACWPC All-America honors, led by First Team selection and top scorer Jacob Mercep (51 goals). Hannes Daube and Nic Porter picked up spots on the Second Team. Marin Dasic earned Third Team honors, and Jake Ehrhardt and Sam Slobodien secured Honorable Mention status in 2019. •