When your team has made the NCAA final 14 straight seasons, you enter the playoffs with certain expectations. But when you’re coaching that team for the first time, those expectations can change.
So USC water polo coach Marko Pintaric told his players before Saturday’s semifinal that the only thing he would ask of them was everything they had. That wasn’t quite enough, with No. 1 Stanford beating the defending national champions 15-14 in sudden-death overtime and a driving rain at the University of Pacific’s outdoor Aquatics Center.
Stanford (20-2) will meet Pacific, a 17-13 semifinal winner over Pepperdine, in Sunday’s final, just the second NCAA championship since 2000 that won’t feature two Pac-12 teams — and the first since 2004 that won’t feature USC.
Still, Pintaric was hesitant to call Saturday’s result a loss.
“When a team gives everything they have, which they did today, did they really lose?” he said. “So I’m very proud of this group. What they overcame.”
USC started overcoming obstacles last spring when Jovan Vavic, who coached the Trojans to 10 NCAA titles, was fired over his role in a college admissions scandal. Pintaric, his top assistant, wasn’t named to replace him until three weeks before the team’s first match and USC wound up losing two of its first seven.
“It was a tough season for us,” Pintaric said.
It didn’t get any easier Saturday when the Trojans, playing before four rain-soaked song girls and 10 members of the school’s marching band, looked beaten before Pintaric called a timeout with Stanford up 12-9 and about two minutes left in the game.
Asked what he told the team, Pintaric took his lead from the band.
“To fight on,” he said. “That’s what we stand for.”
Captain Marin Dasic, who finished with two goals and six assists, said he never considered the game over.
“Until the whistle blows, we don’t stop for a second,” he said. “We just kept going like its 0-0. We had hope. We had will.”
That paid off with a second left in regulation when a power-play goal from drive Luke Wyatt tied the score and sent the game into overtime.
Then came a Dasic goal with 42 seconds left in the first of two three-minute extra periods, which gave the second-ranked Trojans a lead for the first time since the first period. But they couldn’t hold it with Quinn Woodhead tying the score again with his fifth goal of the game with 19 seconds left.
“We were inches from the title [game],” Dasic said.
Stanford’s Bennett Williams opened the sudden-death period by beating Dasic to the ball on the sprint. The Cardinal quickly called timeout to set up a play, one that had Woodhead feeding Ben Hallock for the game-winning goal.
If the loss seemed to mark the end of an era for USC (15-5), so did Pepperdine’s appearance in the national tournament for the first time since 1997, when the Waves beat a USC team led by Pintaric to win their only national title.
And while two goals and an assist from Balazs Kosa helped Pepperdine to a 4-2 lead midway through the first period of its semifinal, Pacific (17-5) responded with a 7-1 blitz to go up 9-5 early in the second half and never looked back.
For coach Terry Schroeder, however, just getting this far was encouraging.
“It’s never easy to finish the season on a loss,” he said. “But this team has a lot to celebrate and I’m super proud of them.”
Pepperdine (25-8) joined Pacific in the Golden Coast Conference in 2016 and this fall both teams made the final four of the national tournament.
“To get two teams in here was amazing,” Schroeder said. “It’s great for our conference. It’s great for water polo.”