2019 USA Water Polo JO Northeast Zone Qualifier Includes America’s Best Referees

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They may not be in all white for the 2019 South Florida International, but this roster includes some of the country's best referees including (from left to right): Irakli Sanadze, Val Vasilchikov, Ulrich Grude, Jose Garcia. Standing is Alex Stankevitch. Photo Courtesy: Annie Tworoger / 3rd & Ocean

Editor’s Note: Qualifications for the 2019 USA Water Polo National Junior Olympics are underway. Over the next month hundreds of girls and boys teams in 11 zones all over the U.S. will look to qualify for two sessions of tournament play in Orange County California: Session 1 (12U, 14U, 16U, 18U Boys) from July 20 – 23 and Session 2 (12U, 14U, 16U, 18U Girls) from July 25 – July 28.

Swimming World was recently at the Northeast Zone (NEZ) Qualifications on June 1, 2 at Chelsea Piers in Stamford, Connecticut, where Greenwich Aquatics captured the top spots in all the contested categories—10U (Coed) and girls and boys in 12U, 14U, 16U and 18U. Your correspondent is involved with the Brooklyn Hustle 14U boys team.

STAMFORD, CA. Imagine if you showed up at your local AAU basketball playoff and saw NBA referees Joey Crawford and Eric Lewis jogging up and down the sidelines. Or the NFL’s Ed Hoculi just happens to be officiating your hometown’s high school football playoffs.

This gives some sense of how significant it was to see Alex Stankevitch and Val Vasilchikov refereeing both days of last weekend’s USA Water Polo Junior Olympics Northeast Zone Qualification tournament. There’s no question that JOs, as they’re known, annually present the vitality of American polo. Hundreds of teams from all over the country seek entry to what has grown over the past half-century into the largest youth water polo tournament in the world.

The Northeast region is not one of the most prominent of USA Water Polo eleven competitive zones; in fact, the largest region—and most competitive—is California, which contains so much competition that it encompasses five distinct zones.

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No one said this game is easy to follow—or referee! Photo Courtesy: Lynne Norell

But when it comes to referees, the East boasts some of the nation’s top officials, with Stankevitch and Vasilchikov among two of the nation’s finest. Two weeks ago, Vasilchikov was in San Diego for the Fischer Cup, which is now the culmination of the National League season, USAWP’s post-collegiate enterprise meant to grow the sport beyond NCAA competition.

Stankevitch, who travels around the world as a FINA-rated official, was on Stanford’s Avery Aquatic Center pool deck earlier in May, when he refereed the NCAA women’s final won by Stanford over USC.

Swimming World spoke to both of the men in white about what it means to them—and the sport—that they are available to interact with some of the country’s younger polo athletes, and provide an exceptional level of professionalism to one of the sport’s most important competition.

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A FINA-certified referee, Alex Stankevitch has risen to the top levels of the U.S. polo officiating ranks. Originally from Belarus in the Soviet Union, he started water polo as a seven-year-old and has been immersed in the sport ever since. A referee since his early 20s, Stankevitch has refereed every major tournament in the U.S. well as many of the world’s top international events.

[Interview with the Referee Alex Stankevitch]

– For you to be here at a regional Junior Olympics qualification is not just a big deal for the players competing, it’s a big deal for the sport.

I don’t know about being the best, but I’ve obviously done some big games—and there are some big games here as well. This is probably the most important tournament we have in our zone under the USAWP flag. I’m glad to be here.

– For these young players, having a referee of your experience is a tremendous boon to their development.

In water polo, the referee has a huge role to play. We almost have to be considered like other coaches. We’re telling them what to do, what to look for and so on. Consistency goes a long way, [and] the mechanics are important as well.

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Alex Stankevitch. Photo Courtesy: Collegiate Water Polo Association

Once they know us, they trust us more on the deck, [and] they know we’re not here to spend a little bit of time and get out. We’ve spent a lot of years doing this. I was just looking at the list of our zone; we have four Level-5 referees here. I’m confident that no other zone will have more than two. The three Level-5 referees [at the zone qualifications] are Val, Josh Kratz and Irakli Sanadze—all international officials.

– The Greenwich 14U boys team that won their bracket has a foundation of technical skill that sets them apart from the competition.

I agree. I was there when they got third place [in the Platinum bracket of the 2018 Junior Olympics]. We’re all very happy for them because that hasn’t happened in a long time. They’re showing that water polo’s growing in the Northeast; you can tell by the number of teams, the competitiveness.

The sport is growing—and I would like to see it grow faster—but we have new clubs and a lot of new [and] younger coaches who are giving their lives to this craft. I see them a lot of times on the deck which means that they’re doing it full-time. That goes a long way.

In the previous game [Greenwich versus Capital in the 14U B final] I saw one player from Greenwich [Ryan Ohl, a member of the 2019 Men’s Development National Team] dominating, playing on a different level.

The key here is to compete year-round—and it looks like some of them are doing that.

– In an Olympic qualification year, there’s a lot of focus on polo right now, which is not usually the case.

Obviously, the game is growing. The women’s game in the United States is probably the best game anywhere in the world—in the way it’s played and the way it’s called. That’s a big part of it because we’re calling a lot of suit, we’re calling a lot of fouls, and the players adjust. I think FINA is going that direction as well.

There’s a big difference unfortunately between East and West, which is particularly pronounced in the men’s game. It’s almost like a different sport. Those top four, five or six teams are playing at a completely different level.

Again, the key is to play year-round here. We need to bring the National League to the East to make our kids play and our coaches coach year-round.

Maybe roster limits are the answer. The third string players from USC or Stanford—he’s a starter in the East. that’s how far apart we are, unfortunately. Even though we pull a lot of players from California, we’re still far apart from the top teams. We can compete against the second five but top four—I don’t think that’s a possibility. Not yet.

So, there are some changes that need to be made.

– Has the overall quality of play in the East improved?

The fundamentals of players are better. Before I’d have to call a lot more ball-unders [and] two handed [fouls]—things like that which we don’t see at this level in California.

Here, you don’t see that anymore. That just shows you they’re playing the game. It’s not about basics, it’s about tactics. That’s a big change.

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Greenwich 14U boys, led by Coach Gabriel Maldonado won their bracket. Next up: 2019 JOs. Photo Courtesy: Greenwich Aquatics

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Familiar to Northeast water polo fans due to his presence at many NCAA varsity matches, Val Vasilchikov has become a fixture on pool decks all across America. Polo is an essential part of his family’s heritage; Vasilchikov’s father and uncle swam and played polo in their native Azerbaijan, and his son Misha, also a referee, played at St. Francis Brooklyn. Father and son are sometimes paired on the pool; both are highly rated referees with the Collegiate Water Polo Association, among other NCAA conferences.

[Interview with the Referee Val Vasilchikov]

–  The 12U, 14U, 16U and 18U teams here at Chelsea Piers represent the lifeblood of American polo.

It’s our duty to help and we’re always available for our zone. We want the kids and the level of water polo to improve. And we’re very happy to be here.

It’s good to see that the sport is growing—no question about this. And the level of the players, even 14 years [old] boys and girls, we have good progress. This is fantastic. Before, nobody even thinks about a team from the East Coast, but now our teams can play almost on the same level as teams from the West.

– I’d say that you’re referring to teams from Greenwich.

It’s interesting to see how the [Greenwich] kids are growing. When I [last] saw them and they were 12U. Now, they move to the next age group and I see continued progress. It’s a pleasure to officiate with good player[s] because they’re smart, they’re fast, and I saw maybe five of them who are ready for the next level.

– What’s encouraging is that—given your experience—your perspective is a national, not a regional one. Why can these teams compete with the West?

Number one is the skills, because if you don’t have the skills you cannot do anything. The way how they control the ball, their vision of the field of play—[wherever] the pass is supposed to go, the ball is there. The player is there. The quality of the pass is very important. It’s part of the game, and a lot of time, as referees, we watch how the team players are partners.

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Val Vasilchikov. Photo Courtesy: Collegiate Water Polo Association

You cannot be a great player and you cannot win the game [unless] you have your partner—it is a team game.

A lot of time when the player instead of passing the ball, he tries to get advantage one-on-one, but that’s very hard because you have to swim. I say to myself: Hey, just pass the ball. This is not soccer! Just pass the ball to your teammate.

After that you can get inside position and get the ball back from your teammate.

– There’s a lot of change coming to water polo in the form of new rules from FINA.

Two weeks ago, I was involved in the Fisher Cup—it’s the final weekend for the National League. We applied the new [FINA] rules—new possession [of] 20 seconds after a shot or rebound or corner. It was a game that was more interesting.

[USA Water Polo Announces Implementation Of New FINA Water Polo Rules]

It was the first time that I officiate and apply new rules. [There] was less physicality and was more fun to watch the game.

– How do you see these new rules impacting NCAA varsity play?

The people from NCAA will review the new rules and maybe they will adopt some of them. FINA tried to adopt rules from NCAA because nobody wants to watch the wrestling in the water with 150 kgs, 2-meter giant players holding on to each other. It’s no movement, nothing. It’s a static game and not interesting to watch.

Now FINA steps up with big changes; probably after [the] Olympic Games the NCAA will adopt some of [the new rules].

– Who will replace Bob Corb, NCAA National Coordinator of Water Polo Officials?

We have a new person: Amber Drury, FINA referee from the United States. She’s a very experienced referee, one of the top referees in the country. Hopefully she’ll continue to do the same way as Bob. We’ll see.

[On The Record with Bob Corb, NCAA National Coordinator of Water Polo Officials]