Sept. 20, 2010

By Trevor Freeman
Special to NCAA.com

The first big tournament of the 2010 season ended with a matchup of the same two teams that faced off in last season's NCAA Championship game.  Champion and challenger met with another title in the balance and it was once again a game for the ages.  This past weekend's NorCal Invitational was the first collision of contenders and it was everything the water polo public anticipated.

While the NorCal Invitational was the marquee water polo event of the weekend, there was also a big tournament out East.  Every major squad outside of Navy (who was at the NorCal Invitational) was present and accounted for at the ECAC Tournament and one team stood out.  Thirteenth-ranked St. Francis is off to a scorching start to the season and that outstanding beginning continued in Boston.  The Terriers defeated Fordham, Princeton and Brown to capture the tournament title and improve to 9-0 on the season.  This talented group is led by second-year Head Coach Igor Samardzija.  I caught up with Coach Samardzija prior to his team's outstanding weekend and below is our interview.

You had a nice start to the season as I saw St. Francis beat both Navy and Bucknell at the Bison Invitational.  Your squad has clearly moved into frontrunner status in the East. What does St. Francis need to do to win the Eastern title?

"This is just the start to the season, although it was nice to get two big wins.  We need to continue to improve as a team as there is still a long way until November and the other teams in the East will improve as well.


We do firstly need to win against the rest of the contenders (Fordham, Princeton, Brown, Johns Hopkins) next weekend in order to claim rights on such status.  The East Coast looks really unpredictable this year and it will be interesting to see how it unfolds by November. I just hope that all of my guys stay healthy and that they do well in school. For the rest, it will come naturally."

Nikola Djuric had a great weekend and is one of the top goalies in the country.  Can you tell us what makes him the great player that he is?

"Nikola is one of our two captains so he is equally important outside the pool as he is inside the pool.  He and Stefan Gencic get credit for the start that we have had as they have done a great job in that role.  Nikola played good against Navy and had ten saves but he could have played even better.  He has been getting some nice competition from Igor Mladenovic and is working real hard."

You signed an impressive class of recruits during the summer.  Can you tell us about them?

"We signed five guys and the only one who will not see playing time is Tyler Perkins (I had to redshirt Tyler because of the roster limits, not because of his athletic abilities. I am counting on him for the next season).  I am extremely pleased with the effort of Igor Mladenovic and Bosko Stankovic.  We are very excited to have them for four years.  I am looking forward to working with them as well as with Marko Dzigurski and Andrew Reed.  These are all quality players and excellent teammates.  Igor played great in the game against Bucknell and had an outstanding second half in our overtime win over MIT.  He saved two shots in the sudden death period to help us to the win."

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The NorCal Invitational had a cast that included the top ten ranked teams in the nation.   However, it was one team that stole the show.  The USC Trojans entered this season as the two-time defending NCAA Champions and began this tournament ranked fourth in the country.  That will change when the latest polls are released as USC established once again the team to beat this season is the same as it was last season.  Sunday night, USC and UCLA met once again and the margin between the two squads remained the same.  USC by one.  Two key parts of last year's championship squad were the difference as Peter Kurzeka's hat trick led the USC offense while Joel Dennerley's twelve saves anchored the defense to an 11-10 win over the Bruins.  Prior to defeating UCLA, USC knocked off top-ranked California 12-11 in the semifinals behind four goals from Peter Kurzeka and a last-second save by Joel Dennerley.  On Saturday, USC defeated Navy and fifth-ranked UC-Irvine.  UCLA's path to the championship tilt included wins over nineteenth-ranked Air Force, seventh-ranked Pacific and third-ranked Stanford.

California finished third place at the NorCal Invitational by virtue of an 11-8 win over Stanford.  Wil Toppen's twelve saves were the difference for the Golden Bears in that contest.  Sixth-ranked UC-Santa Barbara has to be satisfied with their fifth-place showing at NorCals.  The Gauchos only loss was a 7-6 nailbiter to Stanford in the quarterfinals.  UCSB rallied after that defeat to take down both Pacific and UC-Irvine to finish in a strong fifth position.  Milos Golic scored four goals in the 10-9 fifth-place game triumph over the Anteaters.  

While we discussed St. Francis winning the ECAC Tournament in our interview with Coach Samardzija, it should be noted how strong Brown performed in finishing second place.  The Bears took down Washington & Jefferson, Bucknell and Johns Hopkins to advance to that title tilt.  Svetozar Stefanovic, James McNamara and Corey Schwartz all performed well in the field while junior Max Lubin did a nice job in his first pressure starts for Brown.  His twelve saves against Johns Hopkins were the difference in their thrilling 10-9 win.

Player of the Week

Peter Kurzeka and Joel Dennerley, USC, Jrs.:  The two most prominent returners from the NCAA Championship team of a year ago both made a huge impact in leading the Trojans to the NorCal Invitational championship.  Against UCLA and Cal, Kurzeka recorded seven goals to lead Trojan scorers while Dennerley anchored the defense with twenty-one saves.  USC lived up to the adage, "never underestimate the heart of champion."  Perhaps J.W. Krumpholz, Matt Sagehorn, Shea Buckner and Jordan Thompson are gone, however that championship pride remains and it was on full display Saturday and Sunday.

Honorable Mention goes to Andy Sekulski at Mercyhurst.  The Pennsylvania native saved nineteen shots in Mercyhurst's 5-4 overtime loss to Fordham at ECACs.  A three-time Division II All-American, Sekulski is not only one of the top goalies on the East Coast, but I think he should be included in the discussion when it comes to top ten goalies in the country.  


Contest to Watch

UCLA and Loyola Marymount rematch last season's Final Four thriller on Saturday and that should be entertaining.  UC-Irvine also travels to Santa Barbara to take on the Gauchos in a rematch of their tight, 10-9 fifth-place game at the NorCal Invitational.