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No. 3 USC’s Men’s Water Polo Returns Home For Sunday Clash with No. 7 UC Santa Barbara

Oct 27, 2021

#3 USC (14-1) vs. #7 UC Santa Barbara (18-7)
Sunday, Oct. 31 | 1 p.m. 
Uytengsu Aquatics Center
Series Record: USC leads 75-13-2 (W1)
Last Meeting: USC 10, UCSB 9 (Oct. 6, 2019)

No. 3 USC settles back into home waters for the remainder of the regular season, with this weekend's test bringing a nonconference tilt to Uytengsu Aquatics Center. On Sunday (Oct. 31), the Trojans (14-1) host No. 7 UC Santa Barbara (18-7) in a 1 p.m. contest.

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. As of the latest national rankings (released Oct. 27), USC is still at No. 3 in the nation.

The No. 7 Gauchos are 18-7 overall after three wins last weekend, beating California Baptist 23-9, Harvard 13-10 and host Santa Clara 19-5 at the Julian Fraser Memorial Tournament. Sawyer Rhodes leads UCSB in scoring with 53 goals. Goalie Connor McDonald has made 98 saves and allowed 115 goals in his 13 appearances. In a series dating back to 1979, USC is 75-13-2 all-time against UC Santa Barbara. The teams last met in 2019, with the Trojans tallying a 10-9 win over the Gauchos in Santa Barbara.

LAST WEEK        
USC shrugged off a four-goal deficit in the second half by pairing powerful offense with stingy defense to propel the visiting Trojans past host No. 4 Stanford for a 15-11 final score in an MPSF road matchup. Down by four in the third period, USC outscored its host 10-2 in the last 13-and-a-half minutes, silencing Stanford through the entire fourth frame. That defensive lockdown was anchored to near-perfection by goalie Nic Porter, who amassed a season-high 15 saves in the win. The sure-handed senior Jake Ehrhardt notched a hat trick with goals in the first, third and fourth frame, while junior Marcus Longton had his hat trick in place by halftime as he helped fuel the Trojans early. The score snarled up four times and traded hands four times in that first 16 minutes of play, with Stanford serving up back-to-back goals to close out the first half ahead 6-5. The Cardinal came out firing in the second half as well, hammering in three more goals to put the Trojans in a 9-5 hole at the 5:34 mark of the third. Undeterred, USC leaned on its experience. Jacob Mercep got USC back its scoring touch, and then Wyatt Barker whipped in a blast out of set. Mercep would find Ehrhardt for a ripper at the post, tugging the Trojans back within one. Stanford broke up the rally next, but USC clawed back even after Mercep finished off a rare 6-on-5 finish to set up the equalizer, with Hannes Daube hitting Carson Kranz for a slam that locked it up 10-10. USC's five goals in just over four minutes had brought the Trojans back into the game, although Stanford edged back on top with a late strike to close out the third ahead 11-10. In the fourth, however, it was all USC. Porter was making block after block in the cage, with his defense also stepping up to shut down the Cardinal. Meanwhile, the Trojans clicked off five unanswered goals in that final eight-minute span. Ashworth Molthen's feed to Daube was sizzled in to pull USC back even, and then a Molthen field block helped spark a USC counterattack. Mercep found Ehrhardt for that blast, and USC had the lead for the first time since the early second period, up 12-11. While Porter stood tall between the pipes, Chris Sturtevant took USC to a 13-11 lead, and then Molthen delivered the final nails — first with an incredible shot from distance and then with the finishing touch on a lengthy lob that wrapped it as a 15-11 USC comeback win on the road.

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.

BY THE NUMBERS            
Now eight weeks into the season, Jacob Mercep leads USC's scoring charge with 38 goals, followed by Jake Ehrhardt with 29, Marcus Longton with 25 and Hannes Daube with 23. 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 128 saves in 44 periods of work, while Jackson has 28 saves in 13 frames of action. Porter has already notched seven double-digit save performances this year, and Jackson has one. All told, USC's goalkeeping corps is averaging 11.1 saves per game. As a team, USC has outscored its opponents 239-114 for an average of 15.9 goals per game offensively and 7.6 goals-against per game defensively. The USC defense has held opponents scoreless in six periods.

ON THE RISE            
Several Trojans are making moves up the career charts this season. Jacob Mercep leads the way, having risen to tie at No. 4 all-time at USC with 190 career goals as a Trojan. On Sept. 18, both Hannes Daube and Jake Ehrhardt scored their 100th career goals. Redshirt junior Daube now holds 117 career goals, and senior Ehrhardt has 118. On the defensive end, senior goalie Nic Porter took over the No. 7 spot in career saves by Trojans, and now hold 604 saves — 10 short of the No. 5 slot. He's also now registered 31 double-digit save outings as a Trojan.

Senior goalie Nic Porter anchored a powerful Trojan effort at the MPSF Invitational, amassing 33 saves en route to the USC men's water polo team's championship win at the event in Berkeley. For his dominant defensive effort, Porter became the first Trojan to be named MPSF Player of the Week this season. It's the third such selection for the Aussie native in his USC career. Porter averaged 11.0 saves per game in USC's run to the MPSF Invite championship. He topped out with a season-high 14 saves in the title match, turning away a 5-meter penalty shot in the fourth period for a key boost en route to the Trojans' 12-11 victory over host No. 3 Cal.  Porter had opened the event with 10 saves — including a 5-meter penalty stop — in a 13-8 win over No. 7 UC Davis to help push USC into the semifinals. There, Porter notched nine saves and had two steals in USC's 15-13 win over No. 3 Stanford. 

For the second time this season and fourth time in his USC career, senior goalie Nic Porter was selected the MPSF Player of the Week on Oct. 25. Porter made a season-high 15 saves to help anchor USC's comeback win at Stanford while also climbing to rank No. 7 all-time in career saves at USC. USC had trailed by four goals in the third period, but — with Porter's work in the cage — the Trojans would give up just two Cardinal goals the rest of the way. Trailing 11-10 entering the fourth, Porter and the USC defense shut out Stanford entirely in the final period on the way to a 15-11 win. The Trojans improved to 14-1 overall and to 1-1  in MPSF play with the conference road win at Stanford. Porter is now 10 saves away from taking over as USC's No. 6 all-time saves leader. He and the Trojan are lined up to host UC Santa Barbara this Sunday (Oct. 31) at 1 p.m. at Uytengsu Aquatics Center.

FULL FORCE            
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. 

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 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. 

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 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. 

CAGE FIGHTERS            
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.

PINTA'S PROGRAM            
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.

LAST SEASON            
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. •