Despite being plagued by uncertainty, this year’s men’s varsity water polo season—which ended a week ago with Cal capturing a record 15th NCAA title thanks to a 13-12 win over USC in the 2021 title match—represented a much-needed return to normalcy.
The uncertainty was due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which a year ago wiped out all men’s varsity competition. This fall saw a return to order; the hierarchy that has existed in varsity polo for the past five decades as the “Big Four”—Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC—again ruled the pool. Only Stanford, which like the other three is a member of the Pac-12 as well as the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF), did not qualify for NCAAs.
Looking to decipher the first full season of men’s play in two years was Tony Karaman, a referee who officiates matches on both coasts. Karaman has been involved in the sport at every level: as a player, including playing professionally in his native Croatia; as a coach; as a parent—two of his sons played for USC—and now as an official. He is as knowledgeable and passionate about the game as anyone in America.
Given his bicoastal perspective, we spoke about the success of Harvard and Princeton this season in the East, his opportunity to referee at the second-ever NCAA DIII championship, the state of the U.S. men’s national team and what went well—and what was difficult to overcome—a year after COVID-19 wrecked NCAA polo.
– Can we agree that whatever happened in the spring of this year, it was not NCAA men’s water polo as we’re accustomed to it.
Many teams dropped out in the spring and we had a strange championship. Whoever came to the finals was well-deserved because they showed strength and responsibility to be a water polo program.
This season I’m happy everything is back—we might call it normal but it’s not normal yet. There’s lots of testing. Some officials cannot officiate games because they’re not vaccinated and must get tested.
The effects from COVID [was on] high school teams and junior colleges. Many of these kids, they didn’t play club. Junior college, they didn’t have programs at all, so it affected them most out of the water polo community.
– By “affect them” you mean they’re behind where they would be in a non-COVID situation?
Water polo goes year ‘round. Maybe the month of August there’s a bit of a break.
Last year we didn’t have that. We had everybody home and the high school season in California was very short. There was three weeks of men’s season instead of three months and then we had three weeks of a girls season.
It was hard for college coaches to recruit because in a very short period it was hard to see who they want to see.[Munatones on Water Polo in California: Lockdown is Absolutely Crushing]
Besides that, it was hard for kids to commit because they didn’t know what was going to happen next. Were they going to be able to go to college or not? The circle was broken; it takes time to come back to normal.
It’s going to be another year or so until we get back.
– Did the Big Four have an advantage that allowed them to stay ahead of everyone else?
Stanford, USC, UCLA and Cal have the capacity to pay for tests and that’s how they kept practicing. In the abbreviated season last spring, we had a few tournaments of round robin for the Big Four, which never happened before.
Regarding kids going there, everyone wants to go to big programs but they don’t realize that if they go there they might not play. It’s different when they go to university for school or for water polo.
– Which brings up Brown, Harvard and Princeton. Great academic schools which could give the best players a chance to play.
What I see is that Princeton and Harvard are very hard to get in to. No matter how good a player you are, it all comes down to school and grades. Both coaches [Dustin Litvak at Princeton, Ted Minnis at Harvard] are doing a good job at recruiting; they get really good players who are great students.
As a parent if you want to send your son to USC to play water polo or you’re going to send them to Princeton or Harvard—it’s always Princeton or Harvard. Education’s what counts and degree’s what matters in my book. Water polo in this case comes second.
We can’t forget that these kids they’re student athletes, not just athletes. If they’re just athletes let them go play pro in Europe.
– Besides bringing in top Californian kids, Minnis and Litvak are also finding talent in Europe.
I see that Princeton and Harvard are bringing some foreigners—not as many as West Coast because, again, they must be great students. Even though there’s pretty good players who want to come here and play for [Ivy League] schools, they can’t because of grades.
Harvard had a good run for a few years. They lost a few stong players due to graduation [including Dennis Blyashov]. It will take time for them to get back on top. They still have one of the best goalies [junior Noah Hodge] in the country so we will see what comes up.
Princeton brought Vladan Mitrovic in—I think he’s the oldest freshman on the East Coast—from Serbia. He’s 22 or 23. He’s a great kid and good student and his brother was on the Princeton team as a goalie a few years back [Vojilsav, class of 2018, Princeton career leader in saves with 1,142]. And they brought Roko Pozaric from Croatia, who is one of the top Croatian junior players—and he showed that his first season at Princeton.
I think Dusty is doing a great job at recruiting, and he’s gonna be tough to beat.
Between Harvard and Princeton, they can win, and they can lose to each other any day—I wouldn’t bet anything that Princeton’s gonna win or Harvard’s gonna win or St. Francis is gonna win.[The Terriers of St. Francis Brooklyn Are Back!]
I had opportunities to officiate at Harvard and Princeton and saw both teams. It’s surprising to me that Princeton lost to St. Francis in their pool. They were incomplete but that’s beside the point. If you’re a contender for first place, you obviously want to win that game.
I also had the opportunity to go down to the Mid-Atlantic division to officiate Navy and George Washington. It was a good game. Again, they can beat each other any day.
– Princeton won the East, they get to California where they’ll represent their coast, but Coach Litvak and Mitrovic, one of the Tigers’ top players, both test positive for COVID and can’t play—and the Tigers lose 12-6.
I was at the game because I wanted to see it in person. Princeton deserved to win the Northeast Championship. Their final game with Fordham by 17-8 was surprising. I thought it was going to be a closer game because Fordham had a good season as well.[Fordham’s Bacharach Talks Ram Water Polo, MAWPC Hopes @ Navy]
However, [Princeton] coming here, I was expecting that they’re not giving up easy—they’re gonna give a good game to UCLA. Unfortunately, being at a game without Dusty, Mitrovic and some other players had a huge impact.
Would that score be different than it was? With all due respect to Adam Wright and his team, but also to Derek Ellingson [Princeton assistant coach] who stepped in, it would be different per my opinion. I think the game from the beginning would be different. Dusty would be leading and they would have played with a full squad.
Nobody expected Princeton to win this game but it would be a different final.
– You got to work the 2021 DIII tournament, which is now in its second year. What were your impressions of that competition?
I want to take this opportunity to thank USA Water Polo and NCAA for my selection. I’m very grateful to be selected for this tournament. It was fun—and all four teams deserved to have something like that. USA Water Polo and NCAA gave those teams—Claremont-Mudd-Scripts, Johns Hopkins, MIT and Pomona-Pitzer—an opportunity to do something more with their season.[Sagehens Win National Championship Over CMS, 13-12]
Previously they would qualify as the SCIAC champion from DIII and would lose in the quarterfinal round of NCAAs. This didn’t do good to anyone.
This way, it showed why they train and why they have something to look forward to in the season. The two East Coast teams are still behind the DIII West Coast teams, but we had some great games for first place and third place—one goal games.
Nice crowds: it was more crowded at [Pomona-Pitzer] than it was at NCAA DI [tournament].
It would be great if they make a system so both tournaments can be played in one pool. Then it’s going to draw an even bigger crowd. DI one is not playing a third-place game, so all three games could be played at one pool on one day with a bigger crowd.
– At this tournament was there any moment that impressed you?
For third place game and for the first, these teams can beat each other on any given day. There were close games. CMS was leading by two for the whole game then Pomona caught them at the end and they went to overtime and Pomona won.
MIT was down, came back in the third quarter then lost 11-10. It was an even game. [The tournament] was a good challenge for all the teams. [The referees] didn’t have any complicated moments. We didn’t have any brutalities or any moments to forget. Everything was very positive and I appreciated every moment I was there.
– In the end, the Golden Bears beat everyone—including the Trojans for the sixth time in seven NCAA final meetings. Your thoughts about Kirk Everist leading Cal to a record 15th national championship.
Kirk is definitely special. Congratulations to him and his team for winning. Throughout the season they showed they played the most likeable water polo.
– I think many observers favored USC going into this NCAA final.
There are favorites on paper or by names on the roster, but the final is always a 50/50 game—whoever has a clearer head, better momentum, they win.
Who is better team? At this point, Cal is the better team. They won.
There’s always next year for USC because they lost. But that’s the way it goes. When you don’t use the opportunities someone else does.
– Switching to the U.S. national team, Dejan Udovicic will be back for Paris in 2024—even though the Americans finished sixth at Tokyo.
It was a weird year and a weird Olympics given the things going on in water polo.[Is This What Mediocracy Looks Like?]
I would say before the Olympics that Spain was going to get a medal and that Croatia might be in a medal game. Tokyo Games under COVID was very different. Montenegro I would say would be in a medal game… these games were something totally different than [normal]. I think USA Water Polo did a good job being sixth. It was expected that Dejan would remain as a head coach.
– It’s challenging to read the national team program here in the U.S. In America, it’s a bit of a “one-and-done” mindset when it comes to the Olympics.
This year was different. The players from the U.S. last season went to play in Europe. They had championships during COVID. Lots of Americans went there and played. And they progressed. You can tell.
The downside is when you compare the women’s and men’s national teams. The [American] women lived together for a year. They bonded.
The men’s team? They were playing all over the world, progressing individually. They needed more time together to get as a team. They didn’t have that.[Is Continuity Best? Krikorian, Udovicic Re-up for Paris in 2024]
Looking at other teams, Serbia had issues the first round. Croatia had issues; they lost to Australia by three. Spain was one of the teams who you would say was going to win a medal, maybe gold.
It never happened.
Who is to blame? Nobody but themselves!
Being in the group of next three after the medal is not a bad finish.
– It seems that the American men get short shrift compared to the U.S. women, who dominate the sport.
Michael, we cannot forget that the women have the college season in the spring. [NCAA water polo] is the best water polo league in the world for women. Many foreign national team players come here [for college]. Before the Olympics they live and train and travel together. It’s different then for the men.
There’s nobody to blame, it’s just the system. The system is who I blame the most.
– Just to wrap it up, what’s a positive memory from this year that you expect will linger over the years?
When I look back as an official, I’m glad we are finally back on the pool deck—more or less.
There are different procedures at different pools. I’m working more games than usual because some referees are unable to officiate or are they don’t want to. I could drive from one pool in the morning to another pool in the afternoon in the same day and do two or three college games. Especially after a year and a half not being able to officiate.
It was tough but water polo survived. All the coaches and players had enough patience to handle that, and they did it well.
We’ll never forget this. It will give us more strength just to get us forward with our sport in a better way.