Sept. 25, 2011
BERKELEY - Ivan Rackov Striving to Help Bears Claim Another NCAA Title
This feature appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of the Cal Sports Quarterly
By Scott Ball
Ivan Rackov won't be satisfied until he gets what he wants.
For one of the most highly decorated water polo players in school history and winner of both the Collegiate Water Polo Coaches and the Peter J. Cutino Player of the Year Awards in 2010, the senior from Belgrade, Serbia, doesn't have the one thing that has eluded him so far in his Cal career, a national championship ring.
Rackov had the type of junior season anyone could ever hope for last fall, including All-American and All-NCAA Tournament accolades, except what means the most to the Golden Bear star. Despite etching his name among the all-time Cal greats, he fell just short of guiding his team to a national championship against rival USC in front of his home crowd in Berkeley. Such are the high expectations when you are a member of the nation's most successful men's collegiate water polo program that has captured 13 NCAA crowns.
Fortunately for the Cal standout and his teammates, they will get a chance this season to avenge last year's 12-10 overtime title-match loss to the Trojans. Once again, the Bears could be back in front of their partisan crowd as Cal hosts the 2011 NCAA Championship Dec. 3-4 at Spieker Aquatics Complex.
"I was surprised when I won the Pete Cutino Award," Rackov said of the honor named in memory of the legendary coach who guided the Bears to eight NCAA crowns. "It was a pretty amazing feeling and something I wouldn't have been able to experience without the help of my teammates. It is great to have these awards, but until we win the national championship, I am motivated to keep on working. Cal has taught me that history is so important and national titles are so appreciated. To win the national championship in my final match at our home pool would allow me and the rest of our team to always be remembered, and that would mean so much."
It should be no surprise the talented Rackov was named the nation's top player in 2010. The 6-1, 177-pound attacker with the uncanny ability to shoot and score from any part of the pool, simply had a phenomenal season in leading the Bears to 24-4 mark and a perfect 8-0 league record in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation. He topped the MPSF with 79 goals in 28 matches and was twice named the MPSF Player of the Week.
Rackov also paced Cal with 82 assists and playing extraordinary defense with a team-high 70 steals. He was the Bears' top scorer in 18 of 28 matches, tallying at least one goal in every match, including 10 goals in the MPSF Tournament and four goals in the two NCAA tournament contests.
"I would put Ivan right up there among the greatest players I have had the pleasure of coaching," head coach Kirk Everist said. "Ivan has the best feel and the best vision of anyone I've ever worked with. He really sees the game two and three steps ahead of everyone else."
Still, the 2010 season became tainted in the minds of the Bears and their faithful when they saw a 14-match win streak snapped in the MPSF Tournament with an 8-6 loss to host Stanford in the semifinals. Then after slipping by Loyola Marymount, 7-6, in the national semifinals, Cal lost to USC in the championship match in a driving rain storm. Rackov had given Cal a 10-9 advantage over the Trojans with a counterattack goal at 5:02 left in the final contest, but USC capitalized on a five-meter penalty shot a couple minutes later and went on to outscore the Bears, 2-0, in overtime.
Yet, anyone who knows Ivan Rackov understands that adversity has never discouraged the 22-year-old - it has only made him stronger and more determined.
Rackov first arrived in Berkeley in the fall of 2008 fresh from competing for the Serbian Junior National team with fellow Belgrade native Luka Saponjic, a 6-5 left-hander who has known Ivan since age nine and is a close confidant on the Bears. However, according to Rackov, if a player is vying for a spot the Serbian squad, he is strongly advised against playing collegiate water polo in the United States.
"In Europe, they think their water polo is better and if you leave to play in the United States you won't be playing on the national team," Rackov said. "It has always been my goal to play in the Olympics for my country, but I have never regretted my decision to come to Cal."
Rackov scored 31 goals and led the team with 33 assists as a freshman. Invited back to Serbia to try out for the national team, he only played during the team practices and was regulated to filming his team's matches.
"Ivan was a major player in the Serbian youth and junior system, and after his first year at Cal, he was asked to compete for a spot for the World University Games team and was not selected," Everist said. "He was very disappointed. He has been overlooked before maybe because of his size, but Ivan has tremendous heart and talent and can play at any level if given the chance."
Being turned down for the World University Games was not the first time Rackov, who began playing water polo at age six, had been snubbed. He first competed for the Serbian Youth team at age 15 a year after being cut.
"I am not afraid of being told I can't do something because I will always try to prove them wrong," Rackov said. "I have experienced ups and downs my entire life, but I wouldn't be the same person if everything was perfect. I have always used rejections as a motivating force. That philosophy of not giving up can help in all aspects of life and competing in sports enables you grow as a person."
Now that Rackov has more than proven himself in the pool, he is just as passionate and proud of his accomplishments in the classroom.
"Education is the new number one thing in my life," said Rackov, who is majoring in interdisciplinary studies with an emphasis in marketing and media in the modern world and is planning to graduate in three and a half years. "To play college water polo and get a great education are my priorities. Cal has made me a complete person in all aspects of life. School is really important and I have proven to myself I could succeed even though English was not my native language. It is all about controlling your own destiny."
And if Rackov's destiny is indeed a national title, he would most assuredly get what he wants.