Teen makes big splash

Water polo: An 18-year-old from Annapolis heads to California to train for a spot on the women's junior national team.

June 19, 2005|By Chris Yakaitis | Chris Yakaitis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's hard to find a water polo player on the East Coast.

On the training roster for the USA Water Polo Women's Junior National Team, 20 of 23 players list hometowns in California. But Annapolis also makes an appearance on this year's list because of 18-year-old Blaise Stanicic.

A recent graduate of Key School in Annapolis, Stanicic was named to the team last month as the Northeast region's lone representative. She will train from June 27 to July 2 at the USA Water Polo National Training Center in Los Alamitos, Calif., the first step in a two-year process that could lead her to the sport's world championship in 2007.

Over Memorial Day weekend, Stanicic and four teammates from the 18-and-under team at the Navy Aquatics Club participated in a national selection camp in Kearns, Utah. During the intense four-day tryout, 173 young women from across the country were evaluated for swimming ability, shooting skills, defense and awareness. Stanicic was one of the standouts.

"She played the game with a lot of intelligence and definitely had the stamina to make it through the four days," says Kyle Utsumi, head coach of the Women's Junior National Team.

The training roster will be winnowed to a traveling team of 13 players, who will represent the United States in the 20-and-under division at the 2007 World Championship. Although no formal competitions are scheduled for this year, the group will also train in preparation for the 2007 Pan-American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

"This is a new group for us, so we're very excited," Utsumi says. "It's a fantastic start."

The prospect that Stanicic might compete internationally is a particular joy for Mladen Stanicic, the Navy Aquatics Club team coach and Blaise Stanicic's father.

Mladen Stanicic, also assistant coach of the Naval Academy men's varsity team, played water polo extensively growing up in Dubrovnik, Croatia.

"I come from a city that basically lives for water polo," he says. "It's a sport that the city breeds."

He says that coaching his daughter, one of two children, hasn't been unusual.

"We just kind of grew into it. It seems like a natural situation," he says.

His daughter concurs, saying, "I guess I have it in my blood." But she also credits her father's coaching for much of her success. "He's like Splinter from the [Teenage Mutant] Ninja Turtles. He's wise, and he teaches us everything we need to know," she says.

In water polo, a contact sport, players score by tossing a volleyball-size ball into the opponent's goal, which is attached to the pool deck or floats on lane lines.

Games are played in five- to seven-minute quarters. Players may not touch the side or bottom of the pool while involved in the match and, except for the goalie, may hold the ball with only one hand.

Fouls lead to turnovers, penalty shots and timed ejections. Six field players and a goalie make up a full team. Their locations can vary based on the running of plays, as in basketball or hockey.

Typically a center defender, Blaise Stanicic was encouraged by Utsumi to try out as an attacker.

"It was a little weird," she says. "You have to create a lot more as an attacker, create a lot more offensively."

Developing high-quality water polo players is not easy in a region that generally lacks high school programs and recreational clubs, especially for women's teams. As a result, Mladen Stanicic's athletes, 18 and younger, travel extensively for games and often compete against college teams, many of which they regularly defeat.

In his 16 years as a coach with the Navy Aquatics Club, Mladen Stanicic has seen more than a dozen of his players - male and female - make national teams in various age brackets.

"The Northeast Zone [of USA Water Polo] has been nationally prominent for years for the consistency of the program, the training and coaches such as Mladen," Utsumi says. "Getting teams across the country to play, traveling to New York, playing against collegiate teams ... it takes a lot of dedication from the coaching staff to make sure the players get that kind of valuable experience."

Her father's dedication has apparently rubbed off on Blaise Stanicic, who earned spots on the USA Water Polo Youth National B Team in 2003 and 2004.

She started swimming at age 6 and has been playing water polo since age 9. She shares her father's passion for the sport.

"It's a very fast game, and you really have to know the game in order to play it well," she says. "It can't just be finesse. You have to really be committed to it to do it well."

She practices with the Navy Aquatics Club team year-round, five to seven days a week, at the MacDonough Hall pool at the Naval Academy.

Her sense of commitment extends beyond water polo. In her senior year at Key School - previously, she attended Broadneck High School - she was an active student.

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