St. Francis Brooklyn: Retooling to Contend for the East’s Top Spot

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PELHAM, NY. With a brilliant sunset in the background of the New York Athletic Club’s (NYAC) Travers Island pool, the St. Francis Brooklyn men’s water polo team put in final preparation for its opening match tomorrow against the University of the Pacific at Brown’s Bruno Classic. After swimming reps, a spirited scrimmage featured lots of pushing and animated exchanges as players were clearly anxious to begin a season that holds a great deal of promise.

Despite a fifth place finish at the 2015 Collegiate Water Polo Association’s (CWPA) Men’s Water Polo Championships — the program’s lowest ever — expectations remain high for the Terriers, ranked #20 in the CWPA’s preseason poll. Eleven new players and six holdovers from last season add up to St. Francis’s deepest roster since 2013, when it qualified for the last of four NCAA Men’s Water Polo Tournaments (2005, 2010, 2012, 2013).

Holding practice at Travers Island, a pristine facility close to the college’s Brooklyn campus, allows head coach Igor Zagoruiko to focus on a singular goal: getting his team back to NCAAs.

That won’t be an easy task. Not only has the second year coach had to quickly appraise the abilities of his many recruits and integrate them into his system, St. Francis is now a member of the newly-formed Northeast Water Polo Conference (NEWPC) that includes longtime rivals Brown, Harvard, Iona and M.I.T. as well as 2015 Easterns champion Princeton University.

Unlike last year, when injuries whittled his roster to nine field players, Zagoruiko has enough talent to compete against the deep, experienced rosters of NEWPC foes.

Though they have only been playing together for two weeks, it’s apparent that this squad is fully capable of a winning campaign in 2016. The Terrier formula — luring talented players from abroad who value American higher education — has produced a roster of two Croatians, two Serbs, two Hungarians, two Brazilians, a player from China and a couple of Americans.

Bill Harris, head coach for the Fordham men’s team and a 1968 St. Francis graduate, explained what distinguishes his Rams’ New York City rival.

“It’s a challenge to play them; it’s a different type of game,” he said by phone. “When playing Harvard or Brown, it’s a lot of swimming and counter attacking. St Francis it’s more like the philosophy of the Hungarians or the Serbians or Croatians, which is skills and swimming. They have a tactical game that’s superior.”

Leading the pack of Terrier newcomers is Boris Posavec, a mobile defender who played high school polo in California and spent summers competing in his native Croatia. The 6-1 Posavec is a candidate for whole set, an offensive strength last year due to the play of Bora Dimitrov, the Terriers’ leading scorer (73 goals), and Jacob Barashick, a reliable backup. Both were lost to graduation last spring, though Dimitrov, now an assistant coach, boomed out instructions in English and Serbian on the deck of the Travers Island pool.

Prior to his team’s first practice two weeks ago, Coach Zagoruiko expressed doubt about who might step into the point position on the Terrier offense: “We’re going to watch them for a couple of weeks to determine who will be playing and what their roles will be,” he said.

It appears this opening, for now, has been filled, though a lot may change during what will be a long season.

Another newcomer likely to be a difference-maker is also a rarity at St. Francis: an exceptionally talented Californian. William Lapkin – a star at Mater Dei High School in Newport Beach and for Regency in Junior Olympic play demonstrated strong swimming skills and superior pool vision at Wednesday’s practice, making a number of smart plays. Lampkin also appears to be a comfortable fit with sophomore attacker Bogdan Kostic, whose first year in Brooklyn Heights was outstanding.

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Tadeu Rodrigues, a Brazilian lefty with a strong shot, will take the spot in the offense of Liam Veazey, a left-handed attacker and the Terriers captain last year who graduated last spring.

Rodrigues will combine on offense with countryman Rodrigo Siracusa, also considered a newcomer thought he was on the St. Francis campus the past year. Now a senior, Siracusa took a red-shirt year in 2015.

Goalie is perhaps the Terriers’ biggest unknown. Junior Nikola Zivkovic is the incumbent, but freshman Viktor Klauzer, a 19 year-old Hungarian who was strong in Wednesday’s scrimmage. Great Terrier teams of years past have been defined by exceptional netminders, most notably Igor Mladenovic (2010 – 13), whose superior ability allowed defenders to gamble on offense.

With two strong goalies already in the NEWPC — Princeton junior Vojislav Mitrovic, whose 301 saves last year were the highest single-season total in program history, and Brown senior Luke Weiser— Zagoruiko’s choice will need to provide better net coverage than last season.

Whoever is in goal must mesh with senior defender Ilija Djuric, the Terriers’ second leading scorer last year and now their captain, and sophomore Jonas Veazey, a stay at home defender who will likely anchor a young defense corps.

Or perhaps the Terriers may be talented enough that their scoring ability compensates for any defensive shortcomings. With a new crop of sharp shooters sporting size, experience and savvy, the team should have enough ability to compete for the Northeastern title.

Before NEWPC play begins, St. Francis faces a difficult non-conference schedule highlighted by matches against United States Air Force Academy, the University of California, University of the Pacific and two-time national champion the University of California-Los Angeles. It will be tempting to measure the team’s performance from the standpoint of wins and losses, but Zagoruiko understands the true value of playing tough California teams is to prepare for the real season: conference play.

“I don’t want to put a lot of pressure on our players [to win early season matches] because you never know when you’re going to meet them again,” he said. “I focus on using their positive sides — what they can do and to see [a] better picture of [what it takes to play] against top-level teams.”

One of the best top-level teams in the East is Princeton, which St. Francis will now face twice during the regular season: September 28th at DeNunzio pool, and October 29th in Brooklyn Heights, the Tigers’ first-ever trip to the Terriers home.

Princeton men’s coach Luis Nicolao for the most part downplayed the importance of this meeting.

“Any time you go anywhere for the first time it’s exciting,” he said. “Whether it’s Bucknell, St. Francis, Harvard or Navy — those rivalries will always continue. It comes down to who’s playing well that last weekend of the season.”

Nicolao’s thoughts echo those of his St. Francis counterpart.

“What happened in the past, who beat who, for me is not important,” Zagoruiko said. “We’re going to see what we can actually make now in the current situation. This is what’s important.”