BROOKLYN, N.Y. — At St. Francis Brooklyn College, the more things change in their men’s water polo program, the more they stay the same – and hopefully that includes extending the exceptional record of success the Terriers have enjoyed against Eastern opponents.
After three years in Brooklyn Heights, Igor Zagoruiko is stepping aside in favor of Bora Dimitrov, who at 24 years old is the youngest head coach in the ranks of National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) men’s varsity water polo. Dimitrov, an outstanding performer in his two years (2014-15) as a Terrier and an assistant on Zagoruiko’s staff last year, continues a tradition of former St. Francis players quickly rising to the top coaching spot. Carl Quigley (’75) coached from 1975 to 2009. Srdjan Mihaljevic (’01) – after serving as an assistant on the Terrier teams that won Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) titles in 2010 and 2012 – won an NCAA playoff match (2013) during his two years as head coach.
Whoever has coached St. Francis has usually enjoyed success. The smallest school in NCAA Division I men’s water polo has typically played above its fighting weight – especially over the past decade. From 2005-2013 the Terriers qualified for four NCAA Final Four Tournaments, placing Third in the country in 2012.
Ditrimov, a native of Serbia, does not lack for confidence, and he’ll need it. His head coaching career starts with matches against some of the best teams in NCAA varsity water polo. The Terriers open their season at this weekend’s Bruno Invitational against host Brown University, reigning Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference (MAWPC) Champion Bucknell University and West Coast powers Stanford University and University of the Pacific. The following weekend at the Princeton Invitational they will play the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), Bucknell again and longtime East Coast rival the United States Naval Academy.
New York City water polo journalist Michael Randazzo spoke with the Terriers’ new head coach about assuming the St. Francis coaching reins, the expectations this year for a deep and experienced Terriers squad, and the challenge of leading one of the top college teams on the East Coast.
How did you become head coach for St. Francis?
I have so much passion for this sport and I believe that coaching-wise I have a good background from Serbia. I learned a lot playing water polo for 15 years!
Last year as an assistant coach I proved to Igor [Zagoruiko] and Carl [Quigley] our Assistant Athletic Director, that I can coach these guys.
I’m very grateful and appreciative for this opportunity and I’ll use it the best possible way.
The Terriers have consistently been one of the East’s top teams and now they’re looking to get back into the upper tier water polo programs. How will you deal with these expectations?
Playing at St. Francis – and before I came here [from Diablo Valley College]—we played East Coast teams. I felt that I knew the East Coast teams better than the West.
After two years playing in the East and coaching last year I learned a lot keeping track of other teams as well as ours. I was able to see our better and worse sides.
This season my primary goal is to work on the team’s flaws, where the most mistakes are happening and the little things that are [causing us to lose].
In the preseason we are working a lot on those mistakes—the basics—where our team can be much more effective, so we can get back to our place [in the East].
St. Francis Brooklyn has completely turned over its roster the past few years. What will it take to make a difference with this year?
Recruiting has been hard the previous two years. Igor and Carl did a beautiful job recruiting players and it was one of the best recruiting years in the history of the program.
We had ten new players two years ago, one of the biggest recruiting years in the history of the East Coast. It was exciting to get to know all those guys and to work with them last year but they were young at that point. They didn’t have a winning mentality.
We are changing the culture from the previous year to organize a winning mentality. Some changes are already happening—from warming up for the practices to getting into the proper mental setting.
The potential is there and the guys are talented, but we lack a winning mentality. I believe you cannot stop a winner from winning because of their attitude. That what we are working on the most.
Who do you expect to set the tone for this season?
Last year it was Nikita Prokhin, now playing [for Canada at] the World University Games. We are proud [that] one of our players is at the Games. I appreciate that he proved himself as a great leader last year after our team captain Ilija Djuretic – and leading scorer – was injured early in the season.
Nikita stepped up and he again is going to bring a culture of winning. I’m sure when he returns from the University Games he’ll set the tone for the team.
Nikita was clearly your best player and he seems to get better every year. Who else from your junior class will provide leadership and performance this season?
Nikita is our captain and we have a lot of players returning this year. [Juniors] Bogdan Kostic, Jonas Veazey, Ognjen Antanaskovic and [sophomore] Botond Kadar – who was our best scorer from last year – these are players we’re expecting to step up this year.
Those players as well as senior Tucker Angelo [transfer from California Baptist University] – it’s his first season [at St. Francis] but he came ready to go – they are all prepared to set the tone for the other guys that are a little but younger.
Leadership has to come from them in the pool, and from there we have to prove that we’re a better team.
His ability suggests that Kostic will deliver big for St. Francis.
Last year was unfortunate for us. Not only did we have Bogdan fighting through injuries for the whole season – and I think he’s going to come back strong because he’s a fighter—other than that Ilija was injured, our goalie Nikola [Zivkovic] was out. To go a whole season with only one goalie, it’s impossible. You need two.
So that was a big difficulty that we went through. Add that to injuries where we were supposed to practice the hardest and we couldn’t do it because some of our main players were out.
That’s why this season we’re changing that–we’re doing a lot of warm up and work outs. Our trainers are doing a good job to get us ready.
You have a new goalie, Finn Dorries, from Germany. How will this affect your netkeeping situation with returning starter Viktor Klauzer?
I believe in competition, though we’re not like West Coast teams – UCLA, USC [University of Southern California] – who seem to have 60 players on their rosters and [tough] competition for a spot on the team. If you have competition it’s going to go on the bigger scale of the game. The best players are going to play.
I believe [Finn] is going to have an impact even though I have to acknowledge Victor for last season. It’s huge mental pressure going by yourself through the season. He had to step up and did a great job.
This year he’s healthy and I’m looking forward to seeing both of them play. It’s exciting to have two good goalies.
You’ve added speedster Ricardo Berenguer. How will he team with sophomore Will Lapkin to push the counter attack for the Terriers?
The past two – three years St. Francis was a team of 7-to-8 players. We often didn’t have enough players. It was a transition between the coaches from Igor Samardzija to Srdjan Mihaljevic to Igor Zagoruiko. We had a lot of changes and recruiting suffered. I believe that constant coaching changes was the biggest reason that recruiting suffered.
I’m excited for this season because we have 17 players, we have two lines and we’re capable of switching them to increase the dynamics of the game. Guys are going to have time to rest, go back in, go rest. That’s the best thing about this season.
Our freshman class this year all have big potential. But they have to work on their aggressiveness in the pool. It’s still early to predict anything because they just came in.
We have speed, we have movement, we have dynamics. We’re missing the aggressiveness from our freshmen but as the season goes through it’s going to increase.
You played hole set for St. Francis – always an important position in men’s water polo. Who from the current roster will be able to slip into this position?
Before I came to St. Francis I never played primary set in my life. Before that I played left side and I did post ups—that’s how I learned to play set.
When I came here is was a whole new experience for me and I think I did pretty well.
I’m expecting the same thing from Jonas. He is the guy on the team when you say something to him he’s going to work hard towards achieving the goals you set for him. Jonas is going to be our primary set this season [and] we’ll have a lot of other players coming in and posting up.
Your first six games of the season are: Brown, Bucknell, Stanford, Pacific, UCLA and then Bucknell again – perhaps the most challenging start of any team in the country. A trial by fire for a new coach at St. Francis.
Every single day we’re talking about that UCLA game – not to minimize, Stanford, Pacific or any other school – it’s just that they’re UCLA. They were not the champs last year but were the previous two years. As a player, the biggest challenge was to play against the Bruins because when you come up against UCLA, it’s not going to be what you expect. They play much harder than anybody else.
I have reminded our players that we’re going to face UCLA, Pacific, Stanford and other teams, and it’s going to be challenging from a coaching perspective but I’m excited about it. Conquering challenges is what I look for.
When St. Francis faces Bucknell they’ll be up against Rade Joksimovic, one of the East’s most dynamic players. How do you stop him?
Rade is from the same Serbian town [Nis] that I’m from, so we know each other very well. I know how amazing he is as a player – we recruited him to come to St. Francis.
He’s one man. I believe that if we can’t stop one man on an opponent’s team then we don’t deserve to win that game. So we’ll look for ways to stop him because that’s what we need to do if we’re going to win.
We may face Bucknell three or four times this season—and maybe in the [NCAA play-in game] so we have to find a way to stop him.
I’m lucky to have played with him, so I have an idea of his good sides [and] his bad sides—if he has any!
It’s going to be a big challenge to stop him but we look forward to that.
Story courtesy Michael Randazzo