Five Questions for Dustin Litvak, New Princeton Men’s Water Polo Coach

Princeton's Dustin Litvak has his eyes on the ultimate prize: an NCAA berth. Photo Courtesy: Princeton Athletics

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

Dustin Litvak, the new head coach for the Princeton men’s team comes East from one of the most successful programs in the country: the UCLA Bruins, led by Adam Wright. Forsaking the Hollywood Hills for the Jersey Pine Barrens isn’t as terrible as it sounds; Litvak takes the reins of the East’s top program, one that has gone to numerous NCAA tournaments the past decade.

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Not that it’s an easy gig; former Head Coach Luis Nicolao saw top goalie Vojislav Mitrovic and leading scorer Jordan Colina walk the graduation aisles last spring and perhaps decided that a coaching vacancy at his alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy, was simply too attractive to pass up.

But Nicolao didn’t leave the Tigers bereft of talent; junior center Sean Duncan is arguably the East’s best, and this spring astute recruiting added two players very familiar to the former Mater Dei High School star—freshmen Billy Motherway and Wyatt Benson—recent Monarch graduates. Motherway will look to replace Mitrovic in the Tiger cage, while Benson will spell Duncan at center. Throw in Matt Payne (63 goals), Michael Swart (54 goals), Ryan Wilson (25 goals, 86 assists) and Derek Ellingson, Nicolao’s long-term collaborator who is now head coach for the Princeton women but also Litvak’s assistant, and the prospects are good for a strong season of Princeton men’s polo (#13 in the Collegiate Water Polo Association’s pre-season poll).

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The Tigers are gonna miss this guy. Photo Courtesy: Princeton Athletics

Swimming World caught up with the new Tiger coach prior to the start of his new season about the transition from the West, his apprenticeship under UCLA’s Wright, who currently may be the best in the college game and replacing Nicolao, a legend at Princeton.

– You’re a West Coast guy directing perhaps the East’s best team. How different are things in Princeton from what you experienced in Los Angeles?

Other than the weather, so far things haven’t been that different. Everyone here has been incredibly supportive and it’s clear that while academics are clearly the main priority at Princeton—as they should be—there’s a lot of effort and dedication put into the athletics experience here.

The main differences will be in the off-season segments where we will not be able to train as much as I am used to. However, many teams on this campus remain very successful on a national level, despite the restrictions, so we will not be using those as a crutch.

– There’s no question the West has the best players—and the best NCAA varsity programs. What will it take to get the East up to speed with top teams including Cal, Stanford, USC and UCLA—who the Tigers will play in a couple of weeks?

First, I would argue that the East Coast has several talented players that could’ve gone to many of the top West Coast programs if they had chosen to do so.

It seems to me that, more and more these days, some of the top talent is choosing to go East to pursue their goals both academically and athletically. But there’s no question that the teams you mentioned, in addition to a handful of other West Coast teams, reside in the top 4-6 spots at the end of each year. For East Coast teams to be able to consistently compete at that level, which is our goal, we will first need to believe we can do so. In order to do that, we must play those teams as much as we can. That’s why we are scheduled to play both UCLA and Stanford, in addition to three other West Coast teams, at the Princeton Invite [September 7-9].

Ultimately, the scores of those games are meaningless, but we will learn a lot about our group that weekend in terms of our belief in what we are doing and our desire to compete with some of the best. I do wish we had more opportunities to play teams from all over the country throughout the season and year-round, but we will certain take advantage of the high-level games that weekend.

– With you in Princeton and Bret Lathrope in Cambridge, the Adam Wright coaching tree is putting some pretty deep roots down in the East. What is it about Coach Wright’s style and Bruin Pride that you believe will pave a successful path for you / Coach Lathrope? 

I have a lot of thoughts on this question.  While I never coached Bret at UCLA, I did coach him for a short stint at the Junior Pan-Am Games in Florida in 2010 and he is absolutely a student of the game. Anyone who is passionate about what they do and plays for Adam will have success in whatever career path they choose. Adam is incredibly detailed oriented and very process focused, so the players and coaches that come through that program have access to a great roadmap for what it means to be consistent and efficient in your approach to everything you do.

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Wright and his Bruins celebrating winning the 2014 NCAA men’s title. Photo Courtesy: UCLA Athletics

From the coaching side, Adam is also an excellent delegator and collaborator, so even though I’ve served as an assistant under him on both sides, I have also shared many responsibilities that a head coach would have, making me even more prepared to lead a program of my own. There is also a methodology and thoughtful reasoning behind everything Adam does and asks his staff and players to do, so you always feel that the work you are doing is important and meaningful.

But overall, Adam just really cares about the sport of water polo, his players and his staff and it is evident by the number of people that have either worked with him or played for him that continue to contribute to either the UCLA program or the sport of water polo in general, after they leave UCLA.

– The Tigers sustained some significant losses in Mitrovic and Colina. Who is in the pipeline to replace these talents—and how will the Tigers fare this fall against Harvard, St. Francis, Iona and MIT in the Northeastern Water Polo Conference? 

I would be lying to you if I said I had these answers right now. The truth is, I will be spending a great portion of this season learning a lot about our team. And, as I have been coaching collegiately the past three years on the women’s side, I am not very familiar with the other East Coast men’s teams either. What I can tell you, is that we expect to be challenged in all of our conference games and that our staff and our athletes will be prepared for each opponent we face.

– You’re replacing a legend in the East; what’s it like to follow in Luis Nicolao’s footsteps at Princeton? 

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A tough act to follow. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

I’ve gotten to know Luis a little better over the past month or so as we’ve seen each other at various recruiting events and of course everyone at Princeton is loaded with anecdotes of his time here. It is safe to say, there is no replacing Luis. He exuded a big personality here and made both programs feel like a family. That is something I hope to continue.

He also had great success with both the men’s and the women’s teams. But I also believe Derek, most recently Becca [Dorst], and a number of other assistants had a big hand in that success as well. I’m delighted that Derek will be assisting with the men’s team in addition to his duties as the Head Coach of the women—and I very much am looking forward to assisting him on the women’s side as well. He has been a great asset to Princeton Water Polo for nearly fifteen years.

We also just hired [Cara Borovec] as assistant coach for both programs; [she] has played at one of the top high school programs in the country [Laguna Beach High School], as well as for two of the top collegiate programs.  I am very fortunate and excited to work with both of them on a daily basis.

But going back to your question, I don’t really look at it as following in Luis’ footsteps.  There is no doubt he did an incredible job here and I think he will be fantastic at Navy, but our job now as a staff, is to create our own culture and our own footprints (in the snow soon I hear) for what the program will look like moving forward.

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Author: Michael Randazzo

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Michael Randazzo is a freelance contributor at Swimming World focusing on water polo. He covers polo all over the United States for SW and other publications, including the Collegiate Water Polo Association, Skip Shot, The New York Times, Total Water Polo, Water Polo Planet and others. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children and roots for St. Francis Brooklyn polo.

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