Capital Water Polo’s Miras Jelic: The East is Showing Its Potential

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Miras Jelic, Head Coach for Capital Water Polo at the South Florida International Water Polo Tournament. Photo Courtesy: Capital Water Polo

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, CT. From the outside looking in, it might appear that growth in the East has stalled. The 2019 JOs NEZ Qualifier was smaller than last year—for example there were only two 14U girls teams instead of last year’s four. But Miras Jelic, Head Coach for Capital Water Polo in Washington D.C., believes that the region is attracting more athletes while supporting better competition.

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Jelic with his team at 2018 JOs. Photo Courtesy: Capital Water Polo

He should know; as a coach in USAWP’s Olympic Development Program, which features multiple clinic dates and a pathway to the country’s best competition, he’s seen more players from the region receive national recognition then ever before. His Capital teams have also improved greatly the past three years. Last month they upset top-seeded Greenwich in a 14U boys final at a regional tournament, setting off a push by the region’s leading program to regain supremacy—which they did.

After his 14U boys were beaten decisively in a JO NEZ final, Miras spoke with Swimming World about competing against Greenwich, the ramifications of a split with the Potomac Water Polo Club, and whether the tank is half full or half empty when it comes to polo’s growth in the Northeast.

– Last month your 14U boys team upset a top-ranked Greenwich squad—which made the region’s best program to take notice of what Capital is doing.

That’s the luxury of Greenwich. They have so many players—particularly in [the 14U] age group—they can make three teams for a tournament. My understanding is [sometimes] their best players are going to play age-up, which makes sense.

Us playing them in Tri-State—since I was coaching ODP Development [group] this year, I know most of their players, and I knew they didn’t play their first line. When you’re missing three or four of your best players in that or any age group, it makes a big difference.

That [May win] was a great result for us—challenging any Greenwich team is great for any team around here. When we won the Tri-State tournament, players, parents and myself, you’re happy being in position to challenge the best team on the East Coast. But coming to JOs qualifier, Greenwich is going to look quite different.

They were third place in twelve and under last [Junior Olympics], so that group of kids are really talented. They have a great coaching staff, get lots of support from parents, the go to many other tournaments, not just the JOs.

They will go to California maybe two or three times in a year—even before JOs.

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Greenwich 16U versus Chelsea Piers at 2019 NEZ JO Qualifications. Photo Courtesy: Marc Ducret

Those players are exposed to a high level of water polo, more than any other team. My team, when we go to JOs that’s the only time we play outdoors and the only time for us to face the best teams in the country.

When you put all that into the equations and you consider that we are a young club—only six years old—I see lots of improvement. For me, being second for 14 and under in our zone, it’s a great achievement.

– Your 16 U and 18U teams split off and became the base for Potomac Water Polo. Yet you have a 16U squad that is about to qualify for JOs in the toughest bracket of this tournament.

When those things happened in the club, we can’t talk here whether it was right or wrong or if USA Water Polo can make something [of the situation].

Capital lost couple of goalies, who went to Potomac. When you train somebody [for] a couple of years—especially goalie—it’s a different position from any other in water polo. It’s a unique mindset. Most kids playing a sport they want to score the goal, they want to score the basket. You’re not going to find often somebody who wants to try and save goals.

The break between Capital and Potomac clearly was hurting our older group. But then also younger players if they have siblings were hurting [too].

Our 16U now have a game playing Chelsea Piers “B”. If they win [they did] that game they will go to JOs. That’s a great accomplishment. Out of 10 we could be fifth or sixth. It’s amazing.

On the other hand, the team who took our players will most likely not go to JOs.

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Despite a battle, it all ends with a handshake. Photo Courtesy: Marc Ducret

I don’t want to sound like I’m celebrating. I had many other coaches and some parents say that this should not happen, that we should stay together. We still do not have in that area in DC that many kids that we can split into two teams—especially if you don’t have swimming feeding your program.

[The split] is hurting both sides but we were able to recover and we’re going to most likely have two teams going to JOs.

– Is that as many as you’ve ever sent?

No, a few years ago we sent 12U, 14U, 16U and 18U that went there. We do have a 12 and under and a 14 and under “B” team which is the majority new kids. We’re sending them to HaBa WaBa in Montreal. It’s a festival tournament for kids to get into [polo].

We’re going to send four teams this summer–two teams to Montreal and two teams to JOs.

– You’ve become a fixture with Capitals and USA Water Polo, and have seen your club—and the region—grow polo over the past few years.

I moved to DC in 2016. When I came I didn’t know anything about our zone and if they were competitive or not. My first year was challenging—the team we had and learning about the zone. I quickly learned that the best water polo is up here in the North[east] with Greenwich, Chelsea Piers, Princeton.

[I realized] the water polo down in DC is not developed comparing with those [programs]. After three years, talking with lots of parents, what might be good for water polo… might be for our zone to split and be more focused on North Carolina. [Our clubs] always have to travel five or six hours to have one or two games. It’s really stressful for parents and expensive also.

For the new families that are coming to this sport when you say you’re going to have a once-a-month game for every two months but every game you have to travel all the way north.

– Is a split into a Mid-Atlantic Zone the next step for your region?

I don’t know [if a new zone] is the solution for how to grow the sport. If it’s possible to bring more teams from the North to come down, for example, to the St. James. It’s a new facility that Lesley Entwistle [has programmed for polo]. She really tried hard this year—and most teams were saying “No.”

[On The Record with Leslie Entwistle, Water Polo Pioneer Growing the Sport in the Mid-Atlantic Region]

If you want to grow the zone, you have to spread it around a little bit more for other people to see this.

You have the luxury of a pool here [at Chelsea Piers] and a pool at Greenwich and most clubs [in a] fifty mile radius [compared] to going three hundred miles [for matches].

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Polo’s not the only thing growing in DC! Stefan, Miras, Cristina Jelic

That’s what I see after three years. The water polo is definitely growing and the quality… Greenwich is still the team to beat here and also representing our zone in California. I would like to see more teams challenging Greenwich.

One way to do that is having some policy that players cannot change clubs in mid-season. It’s happening in our zone that sometimes the best players from our zone [coming from] small clubs they will go to bigger clubs.

It’s something that we should all talk about. I would like to see, perhaps having once a year a coach meeting with the head of our zone. Sitting around the table and having a conversation between coaches.

I feel a little bit in the air we are not all try[ing] to work with each other. I understand competitiveness—we all want to win—but it’s not all about winning or losing. It’s something bigger than that. Having a meeting, maybe before the JO qualifier, we can open many other questions and start thinking about how we can improve our zone. For the best team in our zone it will be beneficial to have more teams that can challenge them.

The East Coast is showing its potential—and people in the whole country, especially the West, they can see that.