U.S. Cadet team with 2017 Cukic Cup. Photo Courtesy: Stewart McGuire
By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor
Don’t look now, but a Fab Five may be on the horizon for USA Water Polo’s boy’s youth team. Nico Tierney, Ethan Parrish, Ike Love, Tanner Pulice and Garret Griggs return from the group of 15 year olds that last summer stormed into Serbia and went undefeated on their way to capturing the prestigious Darko Cukic Cup, beating their hosts as well as Croatia along the way.
The latest international test for this quintet—who at 16 years old have aged out of Cadet and moved up to join the U.S. Men’s Youth National roster—comes next month at the Union Americana De Natacion (UANA) Junior Pan American Championship in Clearwater, Florida. From July 10 to 15, boys from the U.S. will welcome teams from Argentina, Barbados, Brazil, Canada, Columbia, Peru and Puerto Rico. American girls will host Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Paraguay and Venezuela.
In 2017 U.S. teams captured gold in both brackets; this year, the top contenders on the boy’s side—the U.S., Brazil and Canada—have already qualified for the 2018 FINA World Men’s Youth Water Polo Championships, to be held August 11 – 19 in Szombathely, Hungary. The UANA Championship is a qualification event for the 2019 FINA Junior World Championships, so this is an audition for U.S. players for spots on the Junior National roster—one rung below Team USA’s top talent tier.
Adding to the potential for this group of young athletes is Jackson Painter. According to Nikola Malezanov, his Cadet coach last year, when healthy, Painter—who missed the grand trip to Europe—was one of his best players. It’s high praise coming from Malezanov, who not only led the Cadets to stunning success in Serbia, but is also head coach for the men’s and women’s squads at Washington and Jefferson College in Erie, Pennsylvania.
The 2016 U.S. Junior Team featured Hanes Daube, Quinten Osborne and Marko Vavic, all of whom have seen significant minutes this year with the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team. So, this tournament on American soil represents a chance to glimpse future Olympians in training; members of this squad may be significant contributors to American efforts to medal when Los Angeles host the Games in 2028—if not before.
All matches will be played at The Long Center (1501 N Belcher Rd, Clearwater, FL). The final two days of competition (July 14-15) will be streamed live on USA Water Polo TV at Facebook.com/USAWP and YouTube.com/USAWP. Click here for more information on the event and a complete tournament schedule.
Not only the players are under the microscope this summer. Trent Calder, head coach for the boy’s squad, is a candidate for one of the most desirable college jobs in East Coast water polo—head coach for the men’s and women’s teams at Princeton. Whomever gets this job will have big shoes to fill; with 868 combined men’s (402) and women’s (466) wins Luis Nicolao—who in January left for the head coaching job at Navy—is one of the East’s all-time winningest coaches.
In comments emailed to Swimming World, Coach Calder offered insights about what his team of 16, 17 and 18 year olds hope to accomplish at a regional tournament which they have dominated in the past.
– What can we expect from Team USA at UANA?
I see a lot of good things coming from this team at UANA. First, we have the expectation to win. Second, this is another great opportunity to get this group more international experience, a group that already has a lot of international experience. Third, the next step, there are a lot of guys who are looking to make the Youth Worlds Team and this will be a huge test for them.
– What do you like about this roster and how did this group grow from their experience at Darko Cukic last year?
Darko Cukic last year was an amazing accomplishment for the USA and this group of young men. I think Darko really helped break barriers for them mentally, it showed that they can play at a level that the coaching staff believes they can on the world stage. It will be interesting to see how that group impacts the others on the team who didn’t have the same experience at Darko from years before.
– How will it help water polo growth and exposure to bring an international event like this to Florida?
Any time a tournament like this is being played in your back yard is a great thing. For the local area in Clearwater and on the live stream we are going to see the best that the Americas have to offer. The sport is growing, for countries who are dominated by football, hockey, and soccer to be putting together strong teams in Water Polo is great, being able to bring them to the USA and host them at the top level will be an experience that none of the teams will forget.