Sophomore Roko Pozaric started playing water polo in his hometown of Zagreb, Croatia. Senior Ryan Neapole grew up playing water polo in Southern California, home of the largest number of high school water polo players in the nation. Today, they are both starters on the Princeton men’s water polo team, and they have a lot more in common than one would think.
Their similarities start from the day they picked up a water polo ball.
“I started out swimming a lot over the summer, and water polo was practicing in the same pool next to me,” Neapole told The Daily Princetonian. “It looked really fun. I gave it a shot and fell in love with it right away. I’ve been playing since the age of 11.”
By the time he got to high school, water polo was the only sport Neapole played. He was a leader on both his high school team and local club, LA Premier Water Polo.
Pozaric also got into the sport at a young age.
“My dad got me into swimming when I was about five or six,“ he told the ‘Prince.’ “I saw water polo on the TV during the 2012 Olympics, the year Croatia won, and I wanted to start playing. I loved being part of a team sport, not an individual one.”
After an early introduction to the sport, both players went on to thrive. Neapole attended Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles and had a memorable career. In 2018, Neapole led his team to the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Southern Section Division One Championship as the team captain. Along the way, he earned the Mission League MVP, First Team All-American, and CIF Southern Player of the Year honors. He was also named Daily News Player of the Year.
Meanwhile, Pozaric had an amazing youth career overseas. He and his team won the Senior Croatian Cup in consecutive years. His team also finished second in the Dubrovnik Junior Croatian Championships three times. Pozaric said his best memories from home included playing for the youth national team and scoring the winning goal for the bronze medal in the Croatian Cup.
Both players were recruited by current head coach Dusty Litvak. Neapole was within driving distance from UCLA and USC, two of the top water polo programs in the nation. With how well he played in high school, Neapole could have chosen to join UCLA (12-time national champions) or USC (10-time national champions). Despite these incredible opportunities, he chose Princeton.
When asked about this important decision, he said, “I wanted to have a balance between water polo and academics. I saw [that] water polo can take me to some really good institutions.”
What sold Neapole on Princeton was his visit to the school. He described the team as a tight-knit group, saying “it was so apparent how close the team was outside the pool and how much fun they had with each other.” He said he did not want to miss out on the opportunity to play with such a great group of guys. Neapole called this decision “the best and most influential decision he has ever made.”
Pozaric said he had dreamed of going to the United States to continue playing the sport he loved. He started putting together highlight tapes and reaching out to coaches in hopes of finding the right fit for him. Coach Litvak said he was sold on Pozaric when Alex Bowen, a former Stanford star and current U.S. national team water polo player, recommended Pozaric to him; Bowen was in Croatia playing professional water polo with Pozaric at the time.
“Princeton is an awesome place to be,” Pozaric said. “It’s a great school with great academics.”
The balance between academic and athletics, he explained, was an important factor in him ultimately committing to Princeton.
In Princeton’s 2021 season, the team broke the school’s win record by going 26–8, with Pozaric and Neapole both as major contributors to the squad. As a first-year, Pozaric led the team in goals with 68 goals, while contributing 41 assists and 41 steals. Neapole had 19 goals and 35 assists along with 22 steals.
Both players agreed that winning the 2021 Northeast Water Polo Conference (NWPC) Championships at DeNunzio Pool was the best moment of their Princeton careers. They reminisced on how special it was to win the conference championship at their home pool, especially after the previous season’s cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year, the two have continued helping the program succeed. In 10 games this season, Pozaric is once again leading the team in goals with 26 goals and 10 assists. Neapole is also another major contributor with 12 goals and 10 assists, along with 16 steals. The team is currently 8–4 and ranked No. 15 in the nation, putting them in the running for another championship bid.
When asked about how he tries to be a leader to the younger players on the team, Neapole mentioned “the key has been to lead by example. Our ceiling is as high as we want it to be. We all love to get better together. This team is the closest we’ve ever had. We’re gonna work to get better everyday.”
Similarly, Pozaric has his eyes on the national championship this year. He explained if they practice the right way and gameplan well, they can compete for the conference championship and, eventually, the national championship.
While being stars in the pool, both Neapole and Pozaric have succeeded academically and said they found an amazing balance between school and water polo. Both players agree that the University gives them multiple resources to help them succeed academically.
“We are a fall sport, so we have to set up our good study habits early on. It’s an advantage when the season ends and we have a lot more time to commit to academics,” Neapole said.
As the season unfolds, Pozaric and Neapole will undoubtedly continue to help this team succeed day in and day out by leading the program to new heights. While they started out on two different sides of the world, they are now teammates with a shared goal in mind: to help Princeton win another championship.
Hayk Yengibaryan is a staff writer for the Sports section at the ‘Prince.’ He can be reached at email@example.com or on Instagram @hayk_10_11.