Few people in America are as involved in water polo as Nikola Malezanov. This summer he coached the U.S. Men’s Cadet National Team at the Darko Cukic Memorial Tournament where Team USA went undefeated, stunning host Serbia as well as Croatia on its way to a first-ever title. Just as he returned home to Pittsburgh, PA, Malezanov immediately began a new assignment as a full-time coach for Washington & Jefferson, a small college in western Pennsylvania. When he’s is not on the pool deck, Malezanov and his business partner Jim Staresinic oversee Water Polo Planet, this country’s most authoritative resource on the sport.
If water polo consumes the 35-year-old Serbian native, perhaps it’s because he was born to it. Before coming to America in 2006, Malezanov played for and then eventually coached in Nis under Nenad Manojlović, renowned for managing the Yugoslavian and then the Serbian men’s water polo teams to multiple Olympic and World Championship medals.
Prior to the start of the 2017 men’s varsity season, Malezanov took a moment from his hectic schedule to talk about his history with the sport, his not-so-new-position as head men’s and women’s water polo coach at W & J, a brilliant run this summer with Team USA and his devotion to Water Polo Planet and its founders, Richard “Doc” Hunkler and Joan Gould Bertocci.
You started playing polo as a youngster in Serbia.
I played in Serbia until I was 20 and then decided to go to college. There’s no sport and education connection there so as soon as I started college I started coaching. I was lucky enough that the club I coached at hired some of the best Serbian water polo coaches ever; Nenad Manojlović was my mentor for four years before I came to the States.
I was 25 when I came to the U.S. through Water Polo Planet—small world!—along with Ryan Castle, now head coach for Indiana’s women’s team. We were both looking to continue our journey in the United States— at the start of 2007 he went to Arizona State as a graduate assistant and I went to Salem International, also as a graduate assistant.
After I graduated I went to Navy for a couple of years [where] I was an assistant coach for the varsity team and a coach for the club team.
How was it to work with Mike Schofield, the Navy coach?
He opened his home [to me] when I first moved to Annapolis. It was truly a great experience because I got to know both the famous, legendary Schofield on the pool deck and—off the deck—the kindest person on earth.
Now you’re in Pittsburgh, raising a family.
I’ve been in here for six years. My wife came with me right away. Pittsburgh is a place we settled down and even now, being with W & J it’s a 40-minute commute. We love it there and we hope to stay in this area.
How is water polo in that part of the country?
We travel to Navy and Erie and Greenwich to play [age group] games. There’s a big masters group as well and a couple of enthusiasts around the city. They’ve done a lot to try and promote [the sport] as much as possible. There’s a couple of high schools on the verge of adding [polo] as a varsity sport.
You had previously coached at Washington and Jefferson so the job is not unfamiliar.
I was the interim coach for the women in the spring of 2016. It was when the women’s team was between coaches and it worked for me time-wise that I could help and experience it. But I had very little contact with the men’s team or with other people at the school.
You team went 16-6. That’s a pretty impressive coaching job.
We were undefeated in CWPA league games and lost in the championship game.
How much support is there for water polo in “The Presidents” administration?
There’s a lot, especially since more water polo alumni have been engaged in the school and water polo has enjoyed previous success. Even what the current team has done has been well-recognized around here.[Washington & Jefferson] is a unique place to be. Academically it’s a strong school and a nice community. I’ve enjoyed every moment of my time here.
The recruiting is going smoothly because it’s easy to recruit for a good school. It will be up to me to prove that water polo will be challenging for the students.
We don’t offer athletic scholarships [W & J is a Division III program] but our school is pretty generous on financial aid and academic scholarships.
Your men’s team is a member of the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference West. Do they have a pathway to NCAAs?
Yes, they do. If we’re in the top-two (in the MAWPC west region) then we would go to the Mid-Atlantic Conference Championship which includes Navy and Bucknell and all that [Fordham, George Washington, Johns Hopkins and Wagner]. We’d have to win that to make the [NCAA] play-in game. Pretty much whatever Bucknell had to do [to advance last year. The Bison lost to Harvard in an NCAA play-in game for the 2016 Men’s NCAA Tournament].
Does your women’s team have a path to the NCAA tournament.
No, they don’t.
What expectations do you have this season for your men’s team?
It’s a rebuilding year. Our roster size is a bit small right now—we’re down to ten players. Our goal is to be better every single game as we go through the season. It will be hard for us to determine placement [in this conference]—especially as I haven’t seen the other teams.
We can only rely on our internal goals and that is to improve throughout the season. I know it’s a phrase but it’s our goal.
Talent definitely makes a difference, and coaches can adjust to talent, that’s for sure. The group I have right now is very athletic, young guys that we hope to coach to success. Our goal is to stay as competitive as possible among D III teams on the East Coast and if we can upset a D I or D II school here or there that will be great.
We absolutely recognize that these are challenging games. We cannot control how teams show up; we can only control how we are playing. We have some things in mind that we’ll try to master in time for the conference championships. We’ll use these games as a way to prepare for that.
Hopefully we’ll have a big recruiting class next year which will bring in more talent.
This summer you coached the U.S. Cadet team to a first-place finish in the Darko Cukic Cup. What does this success mean for the U.S. men’s program?
It’s definitely an honor to coach that or any U.S. team. The way I was raised national team pride is always number one. Out of all the teams USA had competing this summer ours was the youngest traveling team. They showed the potential that this country has in men’s water polo.
It’s going to be up to all of us to build on that and keep the players who were on the team—or anyone who’s coming at this age—competitive.
The fact that other U.S. teams did not do as well, one of the advantages we had with the cadet team is that we had the best possible team we could take. We had one injury to [lefthander] Jackson Painter. He was the only one missing from what in my mind was the best roster we could bring.
I was the assistant coach for the team the past three years with [head coach] Gavin Arroyo, so this was my first year as a head coach. This summer was a great experience coaching with Trent Calder of UC Davis, Jeff Powers, a three-time Olympian and Justin Kroeze of OC Water Polo. Jim Staresinic was the manager for the Cadet team.
You knew that team as well as anyone…
That’s not true because the Cadet team is always 15 and under Every year you get a new yield. This year there were 2002s and I get to know them as the process goes along. Next year it will be the ‘03s and I know some of them but it will be pretty much a whole new team.
You said that one of the most important things is to “keep this team together.” How does USA Water Polo make that happen?
This team showed potential, in general the kids in U.S. 15 and under [age group] are as good as any 15 and under players in the world. The question is: when our U15s turn 18, will they be competitive with 18 and under players in Europe?
Is it that they need more opportunities to play both national and internationally?
I would make the comparison that we were very competitive based on the talent we have and a solid team effort, both from the staff and the players. But we can also look at the Netherlands team. They’ve been training together since June, twice a day. The Serbian team that was there trained together for a month and a half prior to this tournament.
For various reasons—from budgetary to calendar conflicts—we had a total of two weeks training before this tournament. For example, [there’s] Junior Olympics. I can only imagine the reaction of the top coaches if I asked them to release their best players to the national team and not have their own teams win or do well at JOs—that’s the cultural difference that exists between the US and other countries. Sometimes the goals of the club coaches are not the same as the national team coaches.
I understand the coaches’ perspective. We can solve that by adjusting our calendars a bit—maybe moving the JOs earlier—which will provide more training for all age group national teams: youth, cadet and senior.
Bottom line, we need as many international playing opportunities for these players to be able to maintain their edge to be competitive. And these opportunities are in Europe, they’re not in Canada, they’re not in USA. We have to find a way to get our kids to Europe as much and for as long as possible.
How sympathetic is Coach [Dejan] Udovicic to supporting the development of this group? Would he advocate that the cadets have more international play?
I absolutely believe so. As much as ODP (Olympic Development Program) has been criticized, this group is a product of ODP. The players on the team have done ODP camps for years now where they’ve learned the fundamentals, both tactical and technical. The short time that we had them together, we were all on the same page [because of ODP].
We have so many kids playing water polo right now, why can’t we find the best kids and support them?
I absolutely agree. If we all accept ODP as our national product and we encourage our best players [to participate] in ODP, then our national coaches will have access to the best players and represent our country in the best possible way.
In years past we did not have all the best players available, so choices for national coaches were limited. This year we had the best crop and it showed in this tournament. Beating the Serbian team in Serbia was really special and beating Croatia in the final was as important, proving that beating Serbia was not an accident.
There’s no question that your team’s success is the shining moment in what was a bleak summer for the U.S. men’s team—a summer that leads to concerns about the viability of the senior men’s chances for Tokyo. One prevailing fear is that we somehow lose our regional spot to Canada.
That is a very serious question and one that we all think about. It is not out of the way. We are aware of that.
Given the concerns, is this a moment where coaches of all levels can agree about a unified plan of how we can sustain and support our men’s team?
I really hope so. As I mentioned, we did have the best possible group of kids for [the Cadet] age group—and it brings up the question: if we did have the best possible group [of players] at the junior or senior level, how much of a difference will that make?
When there’s no in-calendar conflict for the coaches—allowing the players to participate—we can get the best kids. The question for the club and college coaches is: how to we make that happen for other age groups.
As far as leadership, there’s different ways to look at it. Getting ODP into a system, and getting it promoted throughout the country, and getting younger coaches involved and referees that are good. I think we are on the right path. At the moment that doesn’t match up with the senior team’s success but hopefully that will soon be the case.
How soon, I can’t guess but I’m a believer that it will soon be good on the men’s tournament side as well.
On top of all the other things you do, you’re the publisher for Water Polo Planet, one of the country’s most knowledgeable source of information about the sport. How do you feel about this responsibility you’ve assumed?
First I’d like to publicly thank Doc Hunkler and Joan Gould Bertocci, who are the founders of Water Polo Planet, and put great water polo minds together to create articles on so many different water polo topics. They’ve created one of the world’s biggest educational water polo sites. And that is a mission of this site. We do have the message board that allows people to express their thoughts and engage in conversation on different topics, but we also keep to our mission of providing educational content to the interested public.
We are not necessarily a day-to-day news site, but with the connections we have we continue to get contributions from some of the greatest minds in water polo.
Your message board is as beloved and opinionated as any in all of sports.
A lot of our traffic on the website is from the message board. My focus is on what we call the main site, where articles and educational content is posted.
The message board has a tremendous number of pageviews per months no matter what’s happening. And the number keeps rising.
Joan is still in charge of the message board. She has a couple of volunteers that monitor the language and anything else there.
People will often email me and say: “Hey, did you see that on the message board?!” That’s when I go and check it out, just like everybody else.