Princeton’s Litvak Talks Tiger Water Polo on Eve of Princeton Invitational

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Some of the country's best players were at Navy last weekend, including Stanford's Beck Jurasius. Photo Courtesy: Bryan Williams

Starting today, Princeton men’s water polo welcomes 13 teams to the DeNunzio Pool for a full weekend of competition; 23 matches that include seven teams from the Collegiate Water Polo Association’s Top 20 rankings.

princetonNow in his second year leading the Princeton men’s program is Dustin Litvak. Once a fixture of the SoCal polo scene, first as a head coach at Agoura High School, his alma mater, then as an assistant coach to the men’s and women’s teams at UCLA from 2013 – 15 and again from 2016 – 17.

[CWPA Top 20 Poll; Gauchos of UC Santa Barbara Beat Cal, Rise to #4]

Last year he steered the Tigers to the Northeast Water Polo Conference (NWPC) title and their first NCAA berth since 2015. Princeton then dropped an overtime decision to George Washington in a 2018 NCAA quarterfinal match.

This weekend, Princeton will have matches against #9 UC San Diego (today, 6:15 p.m.); John’s Hopkins (Sept. 14, 10:30 a.m.), #14 Bucknell (Sept. 14, 6 p.m.) and #15 George Washington (Sept. 15, 3:30pm). All Princeton matches will be shown on ESPN 3. The full schedule for the Invitational is here.

Swimming World caught up with Litvak last Sunday on the pool deck of Lejeune Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy where his team split four games; wins over Austin and La Salle, and losses to #2 UCLA and #3 Stanford.

– What are the specific takeaways early in the season as you get ready for NWPC play?

For the first game, we’re trying to get as many guys in the water as possible and see different combinations. That’s what we’ll be working with these first two tournaments. We’re always focused on ourselves and what we have to fine-tune. So first, we’re trying to establish our press and our counter, and then more our zone and see where we’re at and build those situations.

Overall, because we don’t train year-round, these last two weeks have been about getting in shape and remembering what our system is. It can get frustrating beating up on ourselves for two weeks. It was nice to play someone and see when we’re functioning the right way, things look really good.

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Princeton’s Dusty Litvak directing his team. Photo Courtesy: Keller Maloney

But we can also see when we’re not thinking we make some unforced errors. One thing we know is, we absolutely have to be the smartest team.

We have some tremendous talent in our group but with the lack of year-round training, it’s tough to compete against the teams that are full-time water polo players. Our guys are not full-time, so in order for that to happen, we have to get everybody on the same page, we have to get everybody to buy in and we have to make sure that we’re always thinking ahead of the game.

– Princeton faces Western programs that play year-round and have to keep up with them.

I  appreciate the fact that the Ivy Leagues give student-athletes an opportunity to be high level students and athletes—but also opportunities to get involved in all kinds of extracurricular activities, clubs on campus, internships, jobs, travel.

When you are a high-level athlete on the West Coast, you have to make a lot of sacrifices. That’s fine for the athletes that choose that, but for a lot of them, water polo is going to end after four years for everybody. There’s very few people that are going to play after college.

The East Coast gives these kids opportunities—especially the Ivy League—to do other things and explore what their passion is going to be post water polo. That being said, we  have to realize again that we are part-time water polo players year-round and then we’re playing against full-time water polo players. That is always going to be a challenge, so when we have the opportunity to train together, we have to take advantage of it. And we have to make sure we’re recruiting the kind of guys that are self-motivated enough to train on their own in the summer.

There’s an article about Andrew Mavis, [center for George Washington] who goes over to Serbia and trains—that’s excellent. We need more guys that want to do this, where they can travel but also play water polo and don’t have to be full-time water polo players over the summer [as] if they were going to a UCLA, Stanford, Cal, SC.

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Andrew Mavis (right). Photo Courtesy: Gloria Kushel

They have to want to stay in shape and be passionate about coming back to the program and making sure we start the season in a good place. Otherwise, we’re setting ourselves up not just for tough games, but for injury.

So yes, it’s a challenge. There are ways that we can plan to train a little bit more year round, but that’s ultimately what it’s going to come down to. I think we can get a lot better in three months. I think it’s very tough to assume in two weeks of training, we’re going to be right there with the teams that have been training since January.

– Which makes a tournament like this both fascinating and hard to read is sometimes you have Olympians in the water—and sometime you’re playing a team in it’s second year of existence.

It’s really all about us. We got so much out of the game film last year playing UCLA, playing Stanford, that just every mistake you make you’re going to pay for it. Every time you don’t attack with confidence, you’re going to pay for it. And every time we’re a little bit late coming back to our zone or on our five man blocks, we’re going to pay for it. There’s a lot of teams where you can get away with making mistakes and maybe being lazy from time to time. Not those teams.

For us, that reinforces how we have to be all the time. But also it shows us the higher level. We talk about this all the time because water polo is not a sport that’s on T.V. or on the internet. It’s getting better, but it’s not somewhere where kids growing up can watch all the time.

[UCLA Water Polo Coach Adam Wright at the Navy Invitational]

If you never see high-level polo played, you don’t really know what you can do. You think the ceiling is whatever we see on the East Coast, but it’s not. There’s some great teams here, great coaches, great players. No question. But, we want to see the best teams play. And to see not just the way they play but the way they stretch, the way they warm up, everything.

It’s educational and beneficial for us to see how the top four teams are doing it consistently. I think, for us, again, we want to be competitive with everyone.

We’re not okay with okay. We won our conference last year—that’s not good enough. If we’re not getting better every day, we’re wasting our time. Who better to challenge us to get better than the Stanford’s and UCLA’s of the world.

– You brought in Antonio Knez, a goalie from Serbia, which is interesting because Billy Motherway had such a great freshman campaign last year for Princeton.

First and foremost, Antonio is a great kid and a brilliant student. I mean, his scores were off the charts. I’m talking SAT, transcripts, TOEFL, off the charts. So, that was an easy one. As far as academics go to get into school like Princeton—he had the grades for anywhere he wanted to go.

He’s played at the highest level, right. I mean Jug’s one of the best clubs in the world. And he trained in the pipeline with the [Croatian] junior team. Billy’s awesome and had a great year for us and so did Ryan [Melosini] last year in goal.

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Photo Courtesy: Beverly Schaefer

For training purposes we have to have more than one goalie—also if something happens to Billy. We were always looking for another goalie. So. this was a no brainer.

I talked to some coaches in Croatia that have worked with him and so far, he’s been great. He’s extremely talented, [but] there’s always going to be a culture adjustment. Moving to a new country, far away from family and friends and school  starts on Wednesday. That will be another adjustment.

They’ll push each other and I think that’s just going to make Billy better, and ultimately make our team better. They’ll both get a lot of run during the year and we’ll see what happens at the end.

– After a series of surgeries, Sean Duncan is back and apparently healthy. He’s a game-changing player. But given the significance of his injuries, how do you manage his time and keep him in the water?

I think Sean recognizes that, after his sophomore season at Princeton, he should have addressed the issues he’s having. He didn’t want to address the surgery question because he didn’t want to miss [time], wanted to be there for his teammates and to play water polo.

Unfortunately, that led to last year. He had to miss the season with two surgeries and face a whole year of recovering—which is physically and mentally challenging. I will say that, the Princeton staff, our training doctors, have been phenomenal. We work very closely, Casey Maxwell, our head trainer, she played water polo, which is not very common for trainers. At the college level, you don’t get a lot [of trainers] that played the sport and understand the demands.

Sean has been really receptive. He’s listening and understanding when in the training he has to kind of pull himself out and he’s done too much and which days he’s feeling better and can do a little more.

Our goal is to get him through a little bit more each training and each game but we have to keep an eye out for him. Even though Sean is really diligent and smart about this, when the adrenaline kicks in, sometimes your body convinces you that you can do more—and then the real  consequences are suffered after the game.

It’s really up to us as a staff to monitor his minutes, make sure that we’re not overexerting him and making sure he build his confidence back by playing against big competition and playing well.

But Sean is a phenomenal player. He hasn’t forgotten how to play water polo. He hasn’t lost his skills. He’s done some things in practice the last two weeks that have been incredible. We’re extremely fortunate to have him. I think, selfishly I wish he’d stay a fifth year. I don’t know if that’s in the cards. He’s going to have some pretty good job offers coming his way. But if that doesn’t happen, we’re going to enjoy the year with Sean we do have.