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PRINCETON, N.J. — There were 120 graduates in the most recent class at Gimnazija Titusa Brezovackog, a high school in Zagreb.

Nearly four months ago, the only one of those 120 grads who was heading to college in the United States was sitting on an airplane, heading out of Croatian airspace, wondering what exactly he was getting himself into next. Clearly Roko Pozaric, about to join Princeton’s Class of 2025 and the men’s water polo team, was diving – literally and figuratively – into the deep end of a new pool, with no idea of what to expect.

“I was stressed a lot about coming here,” Pozaric says. “I’d never been to Princeton before. I’d never been to the United States before.”

He’d met exactly one person who was going to be there with him, Antonio Knez, who was at the time an acquaintance who was about to become a Princeton teammate. At the time he was a countryman whom Pozaric had played against in club matches. 

Knez, by the way, grew up in Dubrovnik, which is 350 miles south of Zagreb. That would be roughly the same as an American water polo player from Princeton who was going to go to college in Croatia, and the only person he knew beforehand was someone he’d played against who came from the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

As it turned out, Knez was on the same plane to the United States with Pozaric. At least Pozaric had someone to talk to on the flight. 

“He said he was nervous when he first came here,” Pozaric says. “It was a new place, with new people.”

And what did he find when he finally saw Princeton for the first time?

“It was beautiful,” he says. “I was surprised by how beautiful the campus was. And the people were so welcoming, especially the guys on the team. They made it a very easy transition.”

Of course they were welcoming. Who wouldn’t have welcomed the 6-3 Pozaric, who has made a huge splash in that unfamiliar pool. His freshman year has seen him put up 66 goals (second on the team behind Keller Maloney) and 41 assists (tied for the team-high). He has won an astonishing 99 of 106 sprints, which is a essentially race between one player from each side and how possession is determined to start each quarter.

“As a player, he is unbelievable,” Maloney says. “He is probably the fastest player in college, and he has a mind and the sense of the game that is very hard to teach. He is fearless, and he does not back down to anyone or any team. In practice, his intensity reflects that. In games, no matter the opponent, his passion is unrivaled.”

Pozaric was named the Northeast Water Polo Conference Rookie of the Year while also earning first-team all-conference honors (Maloney, a junior from Los Angeles was also a first-team pick) as Princeton won the regular season championship. He then had a team-high four goals in the 17-8 win over Fordham in the opening game of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament last Saturday at DeNunzio Pool, which was a program-record 26th victory for the Tigers. It also put Pozaric on another plane, this time with all of his teammates heading to California and a date Thursday with host the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA).

“Roko is a phenomenal kid,” says Princeton head coach Dustin Litvak. “He’s super mild-mannered and humble, and he works incredibly hard. He’s so coachable. There was never a question about his talent, but there’s always a question about how someone will react to being in a new country so far from home, how they’ll adapt. He’s been a pleasure to coach. He brings it in practice every day as well. He does everything he can to make us better.”

Pozaric – his name is pronounced “ROH-KOH poh-ZHUR-rich” – grew up as an only child in Zagreb, the Croatian capital and a city that dates to the 11th century. His paternal grandparents were both professional athletes back when Croatia was part of Yugoslavia, where his grandmother played volleyball and his grandfather played soccer. He played one year of soccer as a little kid and was a decent skier, but he was at his best athletically in the pool. 

He started out as a swimmer, but the repetition of practices and swimming laps left him in search of a different challenge. He found it in water polo.

“I started playing water polo when I was 11,” he says in a soft voice punctuated with his Eastern European accent. “I loved it right away. It was very exciting for me.”

He was able to combine his strength as a swimmer, which saw him qualify for the World School Swimming Championships in Brazil, where he finished fourth in the 50 free while also swimming the 100 free and 200 free, with a newfound passion for the new sport. By the time he reached high school, he was a standout on a club team called HAVK Mladost, even practicing with the adults on the senior team. One of them was an American Olympian named Alex Bowen, whose brother Eric was a water polo player at Princeton who graduated in 2018.

Pozaric began to think about college in the United States as a high school sophomore. A year later, two of his club teammates emailed Litvak about their own interest in Princeton, and Litvak reached out to Alex Bowen for some information about them.

“Alex said ‘the kid you really want to reach out to is Roko,’” Litvak says. “He said ‘that kid’s the real deal. He’s really fast, really smart and really talented.”

Litvak then reached out to Pozaric to see if he might be interested and if he could send his transcript and video.

“Once I saw the video, I was pretty much sold immediately,” Litvak says.

Pozaric’s junior year of high school and following summer were shut down by Covid. When he was first able to return to practice, it was only drills with no more than five people in the pool at once. His senior year, though, was back to as normal as possible, with in-person classes and a full club season.

After graduation, it was time for his first trip to Princeton.

“My parents were really supportive,” he says. “I know it was hard for them, being an only child and all. But when they found out I had an opportunity to go to Princeton, they were very happy. They knew how rare that opportunity was.”

So far he’s making the most of it. He isn’t yet certain about his major, though he’s narrowed it to either economics (he’s taken that this semester) or chemistry (which he will take in the Spring).

He’s also considering staying in the United States after he graduates, unless he goes back to Croatia to play professional water polo. Clearly, this country is growing on him.

He still has some of the wide-eyed curiosity of a young newcomer. He says, among other things, that “American football seems interesting” and “La Jolla was really nice,” after one of Princeton’s two regular-season trips to California. He even marvels at the scouting reports that Litvak and his staff prepare for each opponent, saying this in a fascinated voice:

“Back in Croatia, when we played, we knew all the players on the other teams,” he says. “Here, it’s so much different. I didn’t know any of the players any of the teams, but we get a scouting package before the games. It says who the best players are. Who the shooters are. It’s very useful.”

Maloney has had a front-row seat to see how his teammate has learned about this country.

“What sticks out for me is how present he’s been for this entire thing,” Maloney says. “The team events, the bonding activities that help you get to know each other – you could tell he was nervous about those things but it was paired with an excitement and open-mindedness that was so refreshing. Can I tell you the leaf story?”

The leaf story? Sure.

“So one of the things we do is when the leaves fall off the trees, we each go out and make a big leaf pile and then jump in them. It’s something Americans would know a lot about, but Roko had no idea what we were doing or why. But he had this big smile on his face. He started pulling leaves off of trees to make his pile more beautiful. At the end, he wouldn’t let anyone jump in his leaf pile because it was so pristine and perfect. That’s who he is, and I can’t begin to say how grateful I am to have him on our team.”

In the pool, Pozaric’s college career began with four goals in a 21-10 win over Mt. St. Mary’s on Sept. 4. It wasn’t just his first game in America; it was also a return for the rest of the team after the year away.

“There was a lot of uncertainty as to how to treat each day,” Litvak says. “We’re really grateful to the administration and to the league for all the hard work that gave us the opportunity to play this year. As far as the guys are concerned, we did a really good job of staying close during the Covid year. And we had guys on campus in the spring who could train. All of our seniors have just been phenomenal. The year off provided some perspective for us and helped us work through some things as a program. This year has been really special.”

The two trips to California included a sweep of nationally ranked Loyola Marymount University, Pepperdine University and the University of California-Irvine. The Pepperdine 14-9 win was the first for Princeton against the Waves, and Pozaric and Maloney scored three times each. There was also a seven-game fall break trip that saw the Tigers go 4-3. They have played two tight games against the University of California, falling 11-9 and 15-11. The Princeton-UCLA winner will play Cal in the semifinals.

“I think our experience in California will help us for the NCAA tournament,” Pozaric says. “We have a strong team. We are very competitive in our practices, and that has helped us a lot.”

He’s come a long way in a short time, and not just in terms of mileage. He’s found a second home in his new country, and he’s established himself as something very special in the pool – and out.

“We’re a pretty international team, and it’s something we consistently think about when we have recruits from overseas,” Maloney says. “It’s a huge change for them. Roko from the beginning has always had a mindset of gratitude. It was really amazing. He was just so excited for everything, as simple as trying American fast food to obviously being on a team and going to an American university. He’s approached school and Princeton the same way he’s approached water polo. He’s going to do his absolute best and give everything he has. If he comes up short, then he’ll have learned something and he’ll change his approach.”

For Maloney, the NCAA tournament is a return to his home city. The match against UCLA is a chance to play the team he grew up idolizing, the “Alabama of water polo,” he calls the Bruins.

“I could not be more excited for this trip,” Maloney says. “To have earned the opportunity to compete with these guys gives me a lot of pride.”

Having Pozaric as a teammate has been a major plus. In fact, when you talk to Maloney, you can sense how rejuvenating the Croatian freshman has been to Princeton water polo.

“I’ve been here four years, counting the gap year last year,” Maloney says. “Being his teammate inspires me every day, makes me grateful for everything we have, especially after a year as depressing as the Covid year. That’s just how he is. He inspires the team in unlimited ways and not just as a water polo player…”

He pauses, and then he realizes he hasn’t finished his thought. 

“… and he’s one of the best water polo players I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Story by Jerry Price, Senior Communications Advisor and Historian for Princeton University Athletics

Collegiate Water Polo Association