Marko Pintaric set a lofty target for his first NCAA tournament as USC’s water polo coach.
“The ultimate goal,” he said “is always to make the NCAA championship.”
That’s not exactly a new aim since the Trojans, the defending national champions, have played in the last 14 NCAA title games. But it’s one USC moved a step closer to accomplishing Thursday, beating Bucknell 15-9 in the tournament quarterfinals in Stockton to advance to Saturday’s final four, where it will meet No. 1 Stanford.
Pepperdine, playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time in more than two decades, also won its quarterfinal Thursday, beating UC Davis 15-12. The Waves will meet Pacific on Saturday.
Pintaric, a former national player of the year at USC, is in his 19th season on the coaching staff but his first as head coach after replacing Jovan Vavic, who was fired in March over his alleged role in a college admissions scandal.
The second-ranked Trojans easily cleared the first hurdle between them and a return to the NCAA final, outscoring Bucknell 8-1 in the second and third periods to turn a one-score deficit into a 10-4 lead, then never looking back.
“We’re very fortunate that we won the game and we keep progressing in the tournament,” Pintaric said.
Senior Sam Slobodien scored three times on as many shots, junior Jacob Mercep also had three goals and senior Matt Maier scored two times less than a minute apart in the fourth period to reach 100 in his career. The Trojans (15-5) have won six of their last seven.
“For me personally it’s amazing because it’s my last time ever playing water polo,” Maier said. “I’m not going to play after [college]. So this is my last couple of days of playing [in] a 13-year career. It’s a great experience.”
USC beat Stanford (19-2) in the teams’ only other meeting this season.
“The energy’s always great when we play Stanford. I look forward to it,” Slobodien said.
Pepperdine (25-7) also trailed early before riding a big second period in its win over UC Davis (16-8).
Pepperdine scored on half its eight power-play chances in the physical match — the final man-advantage goal coming from Sean Ferrari with two minutes left to seal the victory. Davis scored just three goals in 12 power-play tries.
Senior Chris Dilworth finished with six goals and an assist while sophomore Balazs Kosa scored four times and helped on two others for Pepperdine.
Pepperdine played Pacific once this season, losing in Stockton in October.
Baxter reported from Los Angeles.