From the April 28, 2002 New York Times - Mihaljevic of Croatia coaches
the St. Francic College Women's Water Polo Team
Diverse Women Form Tournament Team
By ERIK BOLAND
Megan Nolan admitted she had low expectations for her first season on
the St. Francis College women's water polo team.
"Hopefully, we'll win more than three games," Nolan, a junior,recalled
thinking after transferring to St. Francis in Brooklyn Heights last
August from Golden West Community College in California. The pessimism
The women's program, a Title IX sport established in 1996, had never won
more than four games in a season. But under their first-year coach,
Srdjan Mihaljevic, the Terriers, an undermanned amalgam of nationalities
and playing experience, finished 16-3 and qualified for this weekend's
Collegiate Water Polo Association Eastern Championships at Princeton,
St. Francis, seeded 11th, played second-seeded Hartwick (23-8) last
night. The winner of the 12-team tournament, in which Michigan is seeded
first, advances to the N.C.A.A. tournament in Los Angeles.
The 23-year-old Mihaljevic played on several Croatian junior national
teams before coming to the United States in 1996 as a high school
exchange student. The assistant coach, Yulian Hristov, is from Bulgaria.
Jelena Maljkovic, a sophomore, is from Yugoslavia. Gili Kollan, a
freshman, and Carmit Reuven, a junior, come from Israel. The freshman
goalie Liz Grant is from Texas. "Think about it, a Jewish girl coming tostudy
in a Catholic school," Reuven said.
"People ask me about it all the time, but I think it's beautiful to
learn about another culture. We are all good friends."
Kollan and Reuven played together on various Israeli junior water polo
teams. "We try not to talk too much Hebrew," Kollan said, adding,
"Jelena tries not to talk too much Serbian and Liz tries not to talk too
much, I guess you would call it, Texan."
The Terriers have nine players. All of St. Francis's opponents have
between 18 and 20 players, allowing for liberal substitutions during the
grueling 28-minute games in which players swim an average of one mile.
St. Francis has few substitution options and even less room for
Grant sat poolside during a recent practice, her right thumb wrapped in
gauze that covered a blue plastic splint. She broke the thumb, the
second time she has broken it this season, in practice last week before
the Northern Division playoffs in New London, Conn. Grant played all
four games as the Terriers went 2-2 to qualify for this weekend.
"It hurts, but you play with it," Grant said. "We only have nine
people." Warding off shots of the yellow one-pound rubber ball, Grant
has also suffered a concussion, a hyperextended elbow and had her nose
broken twice this season.
Mihaljevic attended St. Francis on an athletic and academic scholarship,
playing four years for St. Francis's men's water polo team. While
finishing his economics degree last spring, he assisted the former
coach, Kylie Parnaby, and took over when Parnaby chose not to return
Mihaljevic, who works during the day as an equity controller with Morgan
Stanley, inherited a team with little or no water polo experience. Other
than Maljkovic, the team's leading scorer this season with 57 goals, and
Reuven (27 goals), much of the team was made up of converted swimmers
like the New Yorkers Patricia Comer and Catherine Dale, who were
learning the sport for the first time. Mihaljevic, and seasoned players
like Kollan, Reuven and Nolan, attribute much of this season's 12-game
improvement to the swimmers' rapid progress.
"They're way better than I was my second year," said Nolan, who played
four years of water polo in high school, then two more at community
college. "They've really done well for just starting."
For next year, Mihaljevic has already secured commitments from two
players, one from Yugoslavia and one from Florida. Still, finding
players in the United States remains difficult.
"In the U.S., with the exception of California, you don't have
water-polo powers in a state," Mihaljevic said. "And the kids in
California, they always want to go to the best water-polo schools, which
are over there. My best bet when I'm recruiting people is selling coming
to New York City."
And perhaps, after this weekend, an N.C.A.A. tournament berth.