The North Eastern Zone Junior Olympics Qualifiers - A View from the Deck

Doru Roll
Water Polo Planet

Last month I had the opportunity to attend the North Eastern Zone (NEZ) Junior Olympics qualifying tournament, which was held on June 7, 8 and 9 at the Greenwich YMCA in Greenwich, CT. The event was hosted by the Greenwich Aquatics club. Though small by comparison to similar events held in California, this tournament is nonetheless important to both East Coast and national water polo.

The facility consisted of a 50 by 25 meter pool, approximately two-thirds of which is all-deep and equipped with a single moveable bulkhead. As a result, the two 25 by 15 meter courses were not setup lengthwise along the pool but rather cross-wise, and were separated by a net designed to catch any stray balls. This arrangement led to the rather unconventional situation of having both referees officiating from the same side of the course, but that didn’t seem to affect the outcome of any games. More on refereeing later.


Seven clubs participated, fielding a total of 29 teams: Ball Under of Arlington, VA; Chelsea Piers of Greenwich, CT; Greenwich Aquatics also of Greenwich, CT; Navy of Annapolis, MD (non-qualifier); Pittsburgh Water Polo of Pittsburgh, PA; Princeton Tigers of Princeton, NJ and YPRO of Brooklyn, NY (non-qualifier).

Of the seven clubs, the Ball Under “Narwhals” are relative newcomers, this being only their second year as a team and as a participant in the JO qualifiers. They fielded two teams in this event, including one of the only two 10U mixed, the other being Greenwich Aquatics. The club was started in 2011 by former Slippery Rock standout and Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) Hall of Famer, Leslie Entwistle.

A total of 45 games were played over the course of the tournament, 24 of which were qualifying JO events in the 18U, 16U, 14U and 12U boys, 16U and 14U girls, and 10U mixed. There was only one 12U girls’ team in attendance, representing Greenwich Aquatics. Some games were severely lob-sided, but that didn’t seem to lessen the passion and enthusiasm of the players. The strongest club by far was the home team, Greenwich Aquatics, who won six NEZ first seeds out of the seven they tried for.

Complete results for the tournament can be found on the Greenwich Aquatics website at


Coaching at this event was very good due to the fact that many of the coaches had played at the highest levels, both domestically and internationally. They included Canadian-born Nathaniel Miller, head coach of Chelsea Piers, former 2008 Olympian and nine times Canada national champion.

The coaching styles were as diverse as the coaches themselves. Although a particular “system” of play was not clearly evident, what was obvious instead was a strong Eastern European influence on practically every team. This is not unusual for East Coast teams, particularly since most of them currently have, or have had, Eastern European coaches. Among them were: Ulmis Iordache of Greenwich Aquatics who hails from Romania; Momir “Momo” Ivetic of Princeton and Nikola Malezanov of Pittsburgh, both originally from Serbia; and Yevgheniy (Eugene) Prokhin and Roman Agabs of YPRO, both from the former Soviet Union.

That is not to say the participating American coaches were any less capable, to the contrary: the diversity of coaching styles resulted in interesting game strategies and plays, with quick drives and counters, good ball movement particularly in 6-on-5 situations and the occasional quick shot from outside 5 meters. Some of the players and teams displayed skills and gamesmanship well beyond their age group. However, that same diversity sometimes made for very animated action on the pool deck, requiring that some coaches be “rewarded” with the occasional yellow, and even one red card.


The tournament was staffed with a total of eight officials, two of which: Irakly Sanadze and Steve Rotsart, are FINA-certified referees. Irakly is originally from the Georgian Republic in the Caucasus region, but these days he lives in New York with his family. He is one of only two Georgian FINA referees presently active.

Steve Rotsart needs no introduction. He resides in California and is both a USAWP and a FINA referee. Steve came to Greenwich at the invitation of the NEZ Head Referee, Eric Welter. Working alongside Steve, Irakly and Eric were: Josh Kranz, Jamie Wolff, Greg Whitake, Misha Vasilchikov, Sergey Kananovich (former player on the Belorussian national team) and the author.

In addition to whistling a few games and conducting on-deck referee evaluations over the weekend, Steve also held two seminars while in Greenwich. The first seminar was on general water polo topics and was open to all: referees, coaches, players and parents, with the intent of increasing understanding of the game at all levels. It was well prepared and engaging, with real life examples and discussions, and active audience participation.

The other seminar was open to referees only, and addressed issues such as: rules and interpretations, calling real-life game situations, what-if scenarios as well as upcoming and proposed changes. The teaching material included video clips from collegiate and international games that presented situations which were discussed in the forum. Of course, it wouldn’t be water polo if the rules didn’t change practically every week, and therefore Steve cautioned everyone that the items discussed in the seminar may very well change again, after the World Championships in Barcelona later this month.

As mentioned earlier, the unusual arrangement of the two courses required the two officials to referee from the same side of the pool. This was accommodated by using the following system: the front court referee would advance to the 2 meter line and focus on the center and the two nearside pairs (1/2 or 4/5), while the backcourt referee would stand at approximately 7 meters and focus on the remaining pairs. This system worked well, except that things at the diving well end of the pool were somewhat more difficult, since access to the 2 meter line was obstructed by the base of the 1 meter springboard. However, in that case having both referees on the same side actually turned out to be a plus, as they could cover for each other.


It is not an exaggeration to say that the NEZ JO qualifier tournament was a qualified success, in no small part due to the efforts of the host team, Greenwich Aquatics, and the volunteers organized by Kim Tierney Wang, Greenwich’s Director of Team Operations. The participation of developing teams such as Ball Under and YPRO is a clear indication that water polo in the North East is alive and well and, despite its seemingly low priority on USAWP’s agenda, it even manages to grow. Surely, there’s a long way to go before we can begin to get near the size and playing level of even the smaller Californian programs, but judging from the enthusiasm and dedication of the players, coaches, parents and officials, this journey is well on its way.