Defending Champion Trojans on Familiar Ground as They Seek Another NCAA Men’s Water Polo Title

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USC's Jacob Mercep was MVP of the 2018 NCAA tournament — and primed for more success in 2019. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

2019 has been a challenging season for the USC men’s water polo program, the defending national champions. With a new head coach — and missing key members from what is typically one of the country’s strongest rosters — the Trojans struggled early and looked to be out of the picture for a 15th-straight NCAA appearance. But a late surge that included back-to-back wins against the nation’s #1 teams put USC back where they always seem to belong: in NCAAs. The fourth-seeded Trojans (14-5) open the defense of their title on Thursday at 1 p.m. (PST) against Bucknell and are as likely as anyone to win it all this year.

But, it won’t be easy. Nothing this season has.

2019-NCAAThe transition from Jovan Vavic, winningest coach in NCAA polo history, to Marko Pintaric, who for the previous 18 years had been Vavic’s trusted assistant, was not smooth. The Trojans dropped four of their first 13 matches — the worst early season record for USC since 2001. That included losses to Golden Coast Conference foes Pacific, Pepperdine and UC Santa Barbara. It was the first time the Waves had beaten the Trojans in 24 years; for the Gauchos it had been three decades since they’d gotten a win over SC. Pacific beat their former Mountain Pacific Sports Federation foe twice in a season for the first time ever.

[There’s a LOT to Look Forward to at the 2019 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championship]

Sitting at 9-4 just before the start of MPSF conference play, the Trojans were staring at a season where they not only missed playing in a 15th-straight NCAA final, but were entirely out of the national championship picture. Pintaric’s major problem has been an inabiity to field a complete squad. Marko Vavic and his brother Stefan have been sidelined for the entire season. There has been no confirmation as to why Jovan’s two sons have remained glued to the bench, but there’s no question that losing a national team player like Marko — who during his two years in Troy has 108 goals — has been significant. His brother Stefan was a skilled freshman who could have provided much-needed depth.

December 2, 2017; Uytengsu Aquatics Center, Los Angeles, California, USA; Waterpolo: NCAA: Harvard University vs University of Southern California Trojans; Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne- KLC fotos

Marko Vavic has lost an entire season. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

With these obstacles weighing them down, the the Trojans’ MPSF opener on November 2nd against top-ranked Stanford potentially spelled disaster. But, it became a signature win in a stirring run of success against conference foes. The 9-8 win at Uytengsu Aquatics Center saw USC hold Ben Hallock, 2019 MPSF Player of Year — as well as the 2018 Cutino Award winner — to a single score. Pintaric’s team got a hat-trick from Marin Dasic and a career-high 20 saves from goalie Nic Porter in beating the Cardinal for the third straight time. It launched a three-match sprint through the conference regular season; USC beat arch-rival UCLA the following weekend and then completed the MPSF sweep with a narrow win over Cal. This made the Trojans top seed in their conference tournament; they stumbled against Cal but again beat UCLA, this time in the MPSF third-place match. Which got them — and not the Bruins — to NCAAs as an at-large team.

[Pacific, Not UCLA, in as At-Large Team for 2019 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournament]

Now they face a Bucknell team traveling West for NCAAs for the first time since 1985, when the Bison made the tournament as an at-large team and finished seventh. These two teams have not met since 2009 when the Trojans won 21-4. USC also won the previous three meetings, with the most competitive contest coming in 2004, a 14-3 victory.

Bucknell (23-8), coached by John McBride, has already claimed an NCAA win, taking down undefeated Harvard 13-12 last Saturday behind six goals from Rade Joksimovic, a hat-trick by Logan Schofield and a determined defensive effort that held Dennis Blyachov and Austin Sechrest, the Crimson’s two All-Americans, to three scores. Thursday’s contest will be held at University of Pacific’s Chris Kjeldsen Pool in Stockton, California. Click here for a live-stream of the match.

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Bucknell’s Rade Joksimovic. One of the East’s best of all time. Photo Courtesy: Rob Dolan

Despite the absence of the Vavic brothers, USC has more than enough depth to make a run to yet another championship match, which would extend the Trojans’ remarkable streak of appearances in NCAA finals. First, they’ll have to get past an opportunistic Bison squad that features Joksimovic, one of the most dynamic players in the East. With a career total of 526 goals — good for second all-time in the Bucknell record books behind Scott Schulte’s NCAA record of 586 — there’s simply no one in the country who has been as prolific as the senior from Serbia.

[Bucknell Men’s Water Polo Head Coach John McBride on Winning the East in 2019]

If USC advances, they will meet top seed Stanford on Saturday in one of two semifinals. A win against the Cardinal will advance the Trojans to yet another championship match, where they will look to capture an 11th title — and the first of Coach Pintaric’s career as head coach.