Dec. 3, 2010

By Jake Curtis
Special to

When water polo star Ivan Rackov arrived at the University of California from Serbia in 2008 to begin classes, it was the first time he had seen the Cal campus.

He had taken the recommendation of some of the many Serbian players who play college water polo in the United States, and he and Serbian national team teammate Luka Saponjic had agreed some time earlier they would attend the same American college, whatever the eventual choice would be.

But at least Saponjic had seen the Cal campus before making a decision. Rackov had no idea what to expect at Cal, anticipating only that his life would be little more than hour upon hour of concentrating on academics.

To be honest, I thought it would be like a prison,” he said. But it was different, not what I expected.”

There was a metropolitan feel to the area - Saponjic says it reminds him of Belgrade - and a family atmosphere surrounding the Cal water polo team.

Now, Rackov, a junior and the leading scorer in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation water polo conference with 75 goals, is completely at home at Cal and at Cals Spieker Aquatics Complex, site of the mens NCAA water polo championships, which will be Dec. 4 and 5.

It is the first time Cal has ever hosted the NCAA championships, even though Cals 13 national water polo championships are the most of any school.

Combine playing at home with a No. 1 ranking that lasted most of the season (Cal dropped to No. 2 this week), and Cal (23-3) appears to be the favorite. Of course, the rest of the field - No. 1-ranked USC (26-2), St. Francis (24-3) and Loyola Marymount (19-8) - might disagree.

Cal, which received the only at-large berth after losing to Stanford in the MPSF semifinals, faces Loyola Marymount in a Dec. 4 semifinal at 3 p.m. PST while USC takes on St. Francis at 1 p.m. PST.

With Cals excitable fans so close to the pools edge, Spieker Aquatics Center provides an advantage for Cal and a distinctive atmosphere for the national championships.

Its not the biggest place or the nicest,” Cal coach Kirk Everist said, but it is the best environment to play water polo.”

Another reason Cal has a shot at its 14th national title is the presence of Rackov, who is barely six feet tall and weighs about 175 pounds, but leads the Bears in goals, assists (70) and steals (56).

Rackovs 75 goals ties him with Everist for the fifth most in a season in Cal history. Rackov was aware of that fact; Everist was not.

It doesnt surprise me at all he knows exactly how many goals I had so he knows when he passes me,” Everist said. Hes extremely competitive, a lot of fire.”

However, there was time it appeared Rackov would never come to Cal.

When Everist took his team on a summer tour of Europe in 2006 that included games against Serbian club teams, he had heard about this 17-year-old Rackov kid who might have an interest in playing water polo in the United States.

But Rackov did not even play in the game against Cal, instead, he was relegated to another pool with younger, less proficient players. All Everist saw was a rather scrawny kid who apparently was not good enough to play for the clubs top team.

I got spooked,” said Everist.

Everist basically stopped recruiting Rackov. He found out later that officials of the Serbian water polo club had purposely removed Rackov from the game because they had heard Rackov might be interested in heading to an American college. In essence, they were hiding Rackov, hoping to keep him at home.

And it almost worked.

Everist had stopped communicating with Rackov, and when Everist approached Rackov in the summer of 2007 and asked whether he might consider coming to Cal, Rackov had a simple answer: No.”

Rackov had been stung by the fact that Everist had stopped communicating with him and was annoyed.

Over time, however, he began communicating with Everist via email, and, with the advice of his mother, who encouraged her son not to shut the door on opportunities simply because he was stubborn, he eventually was won over by Everist.

He decided to attend Cal - without ever having seen it.