No. 2 USC Men’s Water Polo Eyes Tourney Title At 2021 MPSF Invite
No. 2 USC heads north again this week to engage in action at the MPSF Invitational in Berkeley. The Trojans are on the hunt for a tournament title, entering the event as the top seeds this year. That earns USC (7-0) a bye to start this 14-team field, setting the Trojans up for their first test at 8 a.m. on Saturday (Sept. 25) against either No. 7 UC Davis or No. 9 UC San Diego. A win that morning would send USC on to a 2:40 p.m. semifinal that afternoon. On Sunday (Sept. 26), the tournament championship game is set for 1 p.m., preceded by an 11:30 a.m. third-place game.
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. And in this latest set of national rankings (released Sept. 22), USC has moved back to No. 2 in the nation.
MPSF INVITE NOTES
The 2021 MPSF Invitational represents the fourth edition of an MPSF team-hosted event designed as the premier regular-season tournament and set to rotate between Northern California and Southern California hosts each year. This year's three-day event incorporates 14 teams from around the nation. and is hosted by California at its two aquatics venues in Berkeley — Legends Aquatic Complex and Spieker Aquatic Complex. This 2021 event features 14 of the nation's top-20 teams, including nine of the top 10. The tourney was not held last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. In 2019, USC finished fifth at the tourney, beating Princeton 14-6 to open before being edged by Pacific 16-15 in group play. USC would rebound with a 9-6 win over Long Beach State to set up a battle with Cal in the fifth-place game, where the Trojans prevailed 13-12. USC's last championship claimed at the event was in 2018.
USC collected three more wins last week in action at the Aggie Roundup. In a Friday clash with No. 11 San José State, USC regrouped early and roared to a 12-5 victory. The Spartans struck first in that one, tallying a 6-on-5 score before the Trojans fired off three straight goals to steal into the lead. The go-ahead goal came courtesy of a fiery 5-meter penalty shot served up by Hannes Daube, registering the redshirt junior's 100th career goal. The Spartans would get one back before the end of the first, only to see USC rattle off another three-goal rally to open the second. Two goals from Jake Ehrhardt in that surge made it a hat trick on the day for the senior, who notched his 100th career goal in taking USC ahead 6-2. Ehrhardt would finish up with four goals on the day in USC's 12-5 win. The next day, the Trojans received a total of 10 goals from redshirt senior Jacob Mercep to help power up the Trojans to two more wins. Mercep was one of four Trojans to tally a hat trick in an 18-6 win over No. 14 Santa Clara to open the day. He'd then match his USC best of seven goals — five during an eight-goal USC scoring surge — as the Trojans topped host No. 8 UC Davis this afternoon. Against the Broncos, redshirt freshman goalie Blake Jackson worked his way to his first 10-save effort as the Trojans locked down that final 18-6 victory. Hours later against the host Aggies, the Trojans turned the tide on a tie game with an eight-goal explosion in the second half. Goalie Nic Porter hauled in 12 saves to help anchor the win, climbed the senior to now rank No. 8 all-time in career saves with 524.
BY THE NUMBERS
After three weeks of action, Jacob Mercep leads USC's scoring charge with 24 goals, followed by Marcus Longton with 18, Jake Ehrhardt with 12 and Hannes Daube with 10. 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 48 saves in 16 periods of work, while Jackson has 20 saves in nine frames of action. Porter has already notched two 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 132-38 for an average of 18.9 goals per game offensively and 5.4 goals-against per game defensively. The USC defense has held opponents scoreless in five periods.
ON THE RISE
Several Trojans are making moves up the career charts this season. Jacob Mercep leads the way, having risen to No. 6 all-time at USC with 176 career goals as a Trojan — three shy of the No. 5 spot. Last weekend, both Hannes Daube and Jake Ehrhardt scored their 100th career goals in the same game on Sept. 18. Redshirt junior Daube now holds 103 career goals, and senior Ehrhardt has 101. On the defensive end, senior goalie Nic Porter just took over the No. 8 spot in career saves by Trojans, now with 524 saves.
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. 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.
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.
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 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.
Marko Pintaric, who has been part of 14 NCAA championships during his 20 years on the USC coaching staff, is in his third year at the helm of the Trojan water polo program. 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 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 Ehrhardt, Jacob Mercep and Nic Porter. •