On The Record with Sasa Branisavljevic of Vanguard Aquatics

Sasa Branisavljevic with his Vanguard 18U squad. Photo Courtesy: Sasa Branisavljevic

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

When Sasa Branisavljevic and Uros Dzelebdzic broke away from Huntington Beach Water Polo Club five years ago to form Vanguard Aquatics, it’s likely they never expected to enjoy immediate success.


But, given their experience with Southern California’s age group water polo—arguably the world’s best—both might may had an inkling of just how good their new club might be.

In 2013—the club’s first USA Water Polo National Junior Olympics—the neophyte program took home Platinum titles in the 10U and 14U Boys brackets. Since then, the club has piled on the JO hardware—nine additional Platinum titles including this past week in 10U Coed, 12U and 14U Boys.

Outsized results have become routine for Branisavljevic—who took over as club president when Dzelebdzic left to pursue a career in the U.S. Military—and his fellow Vanguard coaches. A Serbian native, Branisavljevic started playing water polo at age 9, quickly rising through the ranks to become, at age 16, the youngest player on the Spartak Subotica professional team that competes in Serbia’s first division.

Coming to America, from 2008-09 Branisavljevic played for Long Beach City College and began coaching at Huntington Beach, from which he and Dzelebdzic launched their club. Swimming World spoke with him about Vanguard’s impressive success, it’s role in developing the players for USA Water Polo’s national pipeline of talent, and its rivalry with SOCAL Water Polo Club in the polo-mad neighborhoods that surround Los Angeles.


Vanguard triumphant. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

– You’ve got a wealth of experience playing polo, both in your native Serbia and when you came to America a decade ago. How did you end up starting a club like Vanguard?

I grew up in Serbia playing polo, starting at the age of nine. I went to all the age groups of Spartak. I made the regional national team. I ended up playing under contract for four years; two years at Division 1 and two years of Division 2. During that time I was able to play against teams like Partizan and against some of the greatest players in the country at the time.

Coming to the United States, it took a couple of years to get familiar with how things work here. I played at Long Beach City [College] for a year [2008-09] before I got injured. I was giving private lessons when I saw an opportunity in Huntington Beach. There were a couple of amateur level clubs were some kids would practice twice or three times a week. [Players] were getting skills but not at a high level.

I saw an opportunity to build something that Huntington Beach deserved. We came up with Vanguard because we had the coaches—they were the driving force. All of us wanted to make something more than was currently happening [in Huntington].

Uros and I—along with a couple of parents—decided to start up a program. After that, given our experience with age group polo in Huntington Beach, we started up Vanguard with 40 – 50 kids. We started implementing our system of training, increase the workload to four – five practices per week.

We recommended training outside of water polo such as calisthenics [and] basic lifting and core strength. And it started producing results fairly early. We were able to win JOs that year [2013] for our 14U boys group and our 10U boys group. Our 12s came in third.

That was a huge success right off the bat.

– Your club has been around for only five years but has had an outsized impact on California water polo. What’s the reason for your club’s immediate and continued success?

We coached these kids for years prior at Huntington Beach Water Polo Club. Once we started up our program those kids came with us and we were able to generate that success.


Vanguard victory leap – a common occurrence at Junior Olympics. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

From that moment on it’s been a cycle of parents wanting to join, trying out our program. We’ve attracted people that have common goals with us—which as Brian [Anderson; Vanguard 12U Boys coach] mentioned—[is] “One team, one heartbeat.”

We’re process-orientated rather than result-orientated. The result is only a by-product of the process. That being said, we put a lot of emphasis on training and maintaining the highest quality standards day-in and day-out.

– You mentioned a “process-oriented” approach. How do you and your fellow coaches put that into practice?

No secret there. The kids who are involved with the sport at Vanguard have a deep care about getting better and winning—but also understanding that you are a part of the team. You need the team but the team doesn’t need you, no matter how good of a player you are.

So, subsuming yourself in the collective effort, to better the unit—putting the egos aside when walking on the pool deck, no matter how good a player you are. Nothing proves that more than the alumni players who come back to us. From Quinten Osbourne to Pat Saunders, Jake Cavano and some of the national team guys who went through our program and respect what we do.

A few of those boys came back and coached over the summer—we take a lot of pride in that.

A combination of the Yugoslavian system with the American mentality; we combine the best of both.

– How does the development of age group players in California compare to and contrast with your experience growing up in Serbia?

We try to mimic the Serbian training system as much as possible. With the volume of tournaments, clubs, pools and resources available where we are, it’s just a matter of time before the sport starts accelerating in the direction we want it to go. Which is to compete at the Olympic level against any other national team.

We want to get the club scene up to the standard that it deserves, so the combination of the best of both worlds is able to produce this result and the saturation of water polo players, pools, resources and then the development of quality coaches within the area.

– Your tenure with Vanguard mirrors that of Dejan Udovicic as head coach of the U.S. Senior Men’s National Team. How important is Vanguard’s relationship with USA Water Polo?

Dejan comes from Partizan, one of the best water polo schools in the world. We are trying to get Vanguard up to Partizan’s standard, and we’re as close to it as we can possibly be.

Our approach is very similar; we do know Coach Udovicic. He’s also on the board of [Imperial Water Polo Club] a club not far from us in Newport Coast that he started with Pavle Filipovic.

We also have another thing with the U.S. National Team; we all used to train at Segerstrom High School and at one point shared a pool with the national team.

We love to see our boys funnel into the national team, being in the pipeline as we ultimately want the national team to succeed.

-You and your club are crucial to developing the pipeline of players feeding the U.S. Olympic Development Program (ODP); what is your assessment of the U.S. men as they drive for a berth in the 2020 Olympics?

The way I see it, the racehorses are there. America has the athletes and there is enough firepower to create something. But competition is key. I applaud the efforts of USA Water Polo to create the National League and try to turn it into the professional league that the U.S. desperately needs to get to the next level.


Vanguard U14 Boys, 2018 JOs Platinum winners. Photo Courtesy: Sasa Branisavljevic

The top players on the U.S. team historically have played professionally in Europe—so if the U.S. is going to be playing at the highest possible level, a local professional league is an absolute must. Something outside of the colleges.

When players graduate college they need a big enough incentive to stick around and compete at that next level.

I know that USA Water Polo is trying to build that. We are in full support of that and hope that it will come along in the future.

– Uros, who played polo at Queens College in New York City, knew that East Coast water polo is as different from the West as to almost be from another planet.

I’m very happy to see Princeton, Brown, Harvard. St. Francis, Iona and MIT [do well]. It looks like their top players are from SoCal and outside of the East Coast. And it’s great to see that more club teams from the East are coming to JOs, and we hope to see the sport grow to the level where water polo will make a bigger impact in the area.

[Uros] said that some of the pools are shallow deep, and they would have these specific rules [to accommodate the shallow end]. I’ve never seen it, but he enjoyed the experience.


Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

[Polo] is mostly academically-driven, and we hope that’s going to come around. Princeton hired Dusty Litvak, he’s an expert in the game, and the Ivies—Harvard and Princeton—are fielding some top SoCal and international players.

We hope to see the level come up in the years to come.

– Rivalries are the lifeblood of sports, and you have a strong local competitor: SOCAL. How has this rivalry played out recently?

We have huge respect for SOCAL. They have been around for a long time. So it always feels special when we beat them. We continue to have it as a goal to beat them in every possible age group that we can.

That’s always a difficult task just because of the history and legacy that they’ve created. To be the best you’ve got to beat the best, and all of coaches set out to do exactly that.

[SOCAL] has a great program, and we look forward to competing against them in years to come—and let the best team win!

Editor’s Note: Swimming World is on the ground all week with stories and quotes from the 2018 USA Water Polo National Junior Olympics. Look for our coverage of the largest youth water polo tournament in the world. If you want to tune into all the action at Stanford’s Avery Aquatics Center, check out FloSwimming’s link to the tournament; for pictures from various JO sites, visit this link for KLC photos.