2021 USC Men's Water Polo Season Outlook: No. 2 Trojans Begin Title Run With Veteran Squad
Even in a season teeming with unknowns and ever-changing obstacles, there was one thing that didn't change. Once again, for the 16th straight season, the USC men's water polo team reached the NCAA Tournament. And for the 15th time in that stretch, the Trojans played in the title match. And now, as the tumult of the 2020-turned-2021 season looks to be assuaged, head coach Marko Pintaric's USC men are primed to stay the course and barrel their way to yet another impressive season of work.
The tools are all there, along with some extra special cogs and wheels that the Trojans were missing last season. Only two members of the 2020 NCAA Tournament roster are gone, while USC welcomes in a trio of U.S. National Team players — all three already All-Americans with NCAA Tournament experience — who had been training overseas. That's along with a bumper crop of new freshman talent.
Those pieces are fitting together well, making the USC machine a powerful one for this coming 2021 season. Entering the action, was picked at the top of the MPSF and ranked No. 2 in the national preseason poll.
"We have great team chemistry so far, that's the feeling I get," Pintaric said. "We made that NCAA final without some key players and now we are integrating them into the system again to play together. I am looking forward to adding our freshman class and having back our Olympians and players who played in Europe last season. It's exciting to have that added experience and more bodies in practice."
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.
"Definitely the strength of the group is our offense. We are covered in every position around the pool," Pintaric said. "Hannes is one of the most talented young players in the USA, and combine him with Marko, Carson (Kranz) and Jake, with their size and agility and driving ability, we have many guys who are both perimeter threats and post-up threats," Pintaric said.
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 Kranz, Max Miller, Tony 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 Sturtevant, Stefan Vavic and Joshua Waldoch, with the highly anticipated addition of Croatian freshman Luka Brnetic sure to cause a stir for the Trojans.
"We have a lot of players who gained experience last season that will be competing for playing time this year," Pintaric said. "I've been happy to see the commitment to hard work from all our freshmen. We are excited to see what Luka will do for us, and I'm pleased with performances of Jake Carter and Aidan Wattson. We definitely have the talent; so we are really working on integrating everybody. Everybody has their role."
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 Lansill, Nic 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 has had NCAA Tournament experience all three years, so he knows what it takes and is a veteran of the game," Pintaric said of Porter. "In terms of leadership and maturity, all eyes are on him defensively and in a leadership role. The team trusts him."
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.
With competition back to a normal cadence after last season's adapted schedule due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, Pintaric and the Trojans are ready to get things underway on this 2021 push. A lot was learned during a tumultuous 2020-21, and the Trojans have now steadied their gaze on claiming an 11th NCAA crown.
"It's phenomenal to get back to some sort of normalcy," Pintaric said. "We had a fun time working together over the summer, and the chemistry is good. We have everything covered."