It quietly started building with a strong set of wins over UC-Davis and Princeton to end the SoCal Invitational and it carried on through the rest of October. St. Francis just started winning and rode that momentum through to another Northern Division Championship. With their 8-7 victory over Brown, the Terriers once again earned a top seeding into Easterns where they have a heavyweight matchup with Navy in the first round.
Igor Samardzija came to St. Francis in July 2009 and has kept alive their strong water polo tradition. With an NCAA Final Four appearance already under his belt, Samardzija is looking for a return trip. I caught up with him to discuss the Terrier program and below is our interview.
St. Francis once again emerged as the winner of a CWPA Northern Divisional Tournament. Can you talk to us about your performance and what were the keys to that victory?
It was truly a nice win for us against arguably the strongest team in East and ahead of the most important tournament of the season. I’m pleased with the performance and victory but we will have to do even better at Easterns.
Final game against Brown was just like every other game in the series this season, with plenty of emotions and intensity. Key was probably in our effective defense against their main scores and our excellent 2 meter play at the offensive end. Overall, we were luckier this time around and momentum is definitely with us now yet I have a feeling that we are not yet done with them for the year. It would not be a big surprise if these two teams are to meet each other again, in the Conference finals. At the same time, for us, this victory will be meaningless if we are not to build up on it and follow with similar performance next weekend.
What does St. Francis need to do to win the East and claim a spot to NCAA Championships?
We need to take care of our game and continue to improve. There is definitely enough room for it. We have enough talent to win the East and guys have been working really hard to get to that point. Basically, everything is up to us. It is my expectation that last win will also give us much needed confidence and that players share that opinion.
The incredible results at Southerns have created two mammoth first round matchups with Brown playing Princeton and yourselves playing Navy. Can you talk to us about that Navy matchup and give us your preliminary thoughts on it?
In past I was always wary of the first round match up at Easterns but that is not the case this year. For the first time in my history with the team, we actually feel ready to play after coming through the divisional play. I also believe that every team coming in the Easterns have right to hope that they can win. Results at Southerns were truly unexpected and it will be interesting to see how things unfold. From our perspective, this might prove to be best possible scenario yet. We have tremendous respect for Navy and we will definitely not overlook them. It is the opponent capable of bringing best in us and my players will not need extra motivation going into the battle. We did not play each other this year, which is odd but we know their style and feel suitably prepared.
Your senior lefty, Marko Gencic has been outstanding for four seasons. What makes him great?
Marko has been our best scorer and assist leader since the day he arrived. He scored too many important goals for us over the course of past four years and therefore enjoys incredible freedom with all of us. He also mastered skill in testing my patience over the same time span. It will be strange to see the team without him; I would hate to see him leaving without a trophy.
I noted your recruiting class this season did not have the international flavor that St. Francis is known for. Is this a change in philosophy for your program or just a one-year thing?
That was more a coincidence then planned but it is working out pretty well for us. Our goal is always to bring the best possible recruits available regardless of the origin. Diversity and integration is something that all of us involved around this program are always proud of and we will continue recruiting with that goal in mind.
With that our interview ended. Easterns begins on Friday and I cannot remember two more compelling first round matchups than Brown-Princeton and Navy-St. Francis. We look forward to watching another great weekend of water polo and would not be surprised if once again the boys from Brooklyn earn a return trip to NCAAs.