This Fall will mark the return of an old face to the Eastern Championship chase. St. Francis College is back and the Terriers are poised to make this season’s return a memorable one. The boys from Brooklyn boast a squad that returns a plethora of offensive firepower and a goalie that ranks amongst the nation’s elite. While St. Francis has a long water polo tradition, last season marked the first campaign with Head Coach Igor Samardzija.
Samardzija arrived at St. Francis College from Columbia University where he led the men’s and women’s club teams to three state titles (2006–2008) and was named Coach of the Year twice for those efforts. Prior to that, he was also an assistant coach at Tent (Obrenovac, Serbia) and played for both Tent and Red Star (Belgrade, Serbia). I sat down with Coach Samardzija to discuss his squad and their NCAA Final Four ambitions. Below is our interview.
St. Francis has always been one of the top programs on the East Coast and this year should be no exception. I think your squad along with Fordham and Brown will be the favorites in the CWPA Northern Division. Your Terriers should also be in the mix for an Eastern title with those two squads along with Southern powers Navy, Princeton and Bucknell. What does St. Francis need to do to win Northerns and Easterns and get back to an NCAA Final Four?
It will take hard work and dedication from all of us involved around the team to get us back there, especially our student-athletes. Going back to NCAA Final Four is our goal for the next season based on the talent I have available and reputation we have. That being said, it’s not going to be easy as the other teams in the East have rightfully similar goals and the level of the competition is much stronger than what used to be the case in the past. In my opinion, all of the teams named above have equal chances to make a run for a Championship berth. I would also include Queens College in that group, as they are in the process of rebuilding the team with a new coach. I think that they will be a pleasant surprise next season.
Personally, I see the next season as a chance to prove myself as a coach while my players are eager to prove the point after resting last season. At the same time, and aside of the result, my own goal is to build and put a system in place that will secure SFC success in years to come by investing more time and effort in increasing awareness in our community. The way I and the rest of the Athletic Department see it, our primary goal will always be to create strong individuals from our student-athletes, or people ready to embrace the corporate world and beyond once they are done with the College. Thus, if you ask my players I am always more rigorous about their performance in the classroom than in the pool. Incidentally, on average and as a team we still have one of the best GPA’s in the country. I will always take that stat over any other title.
I watched your team on multiple occasions last year and I have to say that your style is definitely different from past St. Francis squads. Your team was playing more of a counter game whereas the St. Francis I always remembered playing against and watching use to just physically dominate squads in the frontcourt. Can you tell us a little bit about your style and offensive coaching philosophy?
My primary offensive strategy is based on a good defense. It is my understanding that solid defense will always feed successful transition and therefore opportunity to outplay the opponent at the offensive end. You see, with the new rules in place, water polo has become much more dynamic and the time of static, positional play is in the past. That doesn’t mean that we are playing less physical. We are just smarter about it.
Nikola Djuric is one of the top two goalies on the East Coast and is in my opinion one of the most underrated in the country. Can you tell us what makes him so effective between the pipes?
I usually do not like to tie success of the team to the individuals. At the same time, it is true that Nikola is one of our strongest assets, in and out of the pool. He’s a born leader and very competitive individual. Nikola is a sort of a player that any coach would love to have on his roster. He will get his chance to shine next season and I am confident that he will live up to those expectations. In my opinion, he is in top two in the country, not only on the East. Our success next year will definitely depend in big part on his performance.
I thought Marko Gencic had a fabulous freshman campaign for the Terriers. Can you tell us a little about him and what you are expecting out of him this fall?
Marko had a tremendous year upon his arrival. As a confirmation, he also received our team’s MVP trophy. He blended in the team smoothly and was able to show us all glimpses of what he can bring for the future. Usually, players from Europe have trouble adapting to the more technical style of the game played in US and it takes them a year or two to completely emerge as complete players. I am very pleased that Marko has managed to get to this point immediately after his first couple games played. I expect him to work even harder in future to justify the confidence our coaching staff has in him.
Aleksandar Pantic also had an outstanding season for your team. What makes him the tremendous player that he is?
Aleksandar is a very versatile player that can play any position needed, goalie included. He is a great athlete and even better as an individual outside of the pool. He is by far the most likeable guy in our group and is in charge of keeping a great atmosphere. He can also do much more in the water than what he has shown so far, and I am really pleased to have him around. He is also one of our best defenders and is always willing to commit to the team play as opposed to the run for individual statistics. As a coach, I have to appreciate that.
St. Francis has always been known for its tremendous international pipeline and the water polo world is always to anxious to hear what the Terriers have coming in. Are you expecting another strong class like last fall?
We are currently in the process of signing one of the best recruiting classes ever. I am looking to help our team by bringing in people that will be difference makers from the day they arrive. We are looking to add players that will add depth and quality on the fundamental positions (i.e. goalie, center, guard). We will come out with names sometime soon, as soon as we finalize the process. I can only say that I am proud that we managed to convince some of the best international talent available to choose St. Francis over some of the top ranked teams in the nation.
With that our interview ended. I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that I am happy to have St. Francis back in the Eastern mix. When they were unable to compete at Easterns, it did feel like something was missing. St. Francis brings a certain flair to the table and when the Terriers are involved in the title hunt, it lifts the overall level of play across the East Coast. St. Francis is a school with an outstanding tradition of success in the water and they return a squad that is hungry to make waves this year. The cupboard is overflowing in Brooklyn and it would not surprise me if “the Small College of Big Dreams” finds their way back to another NCAA Final Four.