By Martin Cleary
When Bogdan Djerkovic was six years old, his father Miladin decided it was time for his son to try a sport.
Why not? His introduction to musical instruments was hitting nothing but sour notes.
“I hated learning to play an instrument,” he recalled in a recent phone interview.
His father gave him the choice between studying music, either flute or piano, or playing water polo. His parents are from Yugoslavia, which is now Serbia and one of the top countries in the world for men’s water polo.
“I think it was a bluff for me to play water polo,” he added, but having no regrets now about his decision.
Today, Djerkovic is a powerful, 6-7, 260-pound offensive force for the University of the Pacific and is hopeful his Tigers can win their first-ever NCAA men’s water polo championship this weekend in Berkeley, California.
When Djerkovic started playing water polo, it was a struggle.
“I was a bigger kid, heavier back then. It was harder to swim. I didn’t like it that much,” explained the graduate of St. Francis Xavier Catholic High School in Riverside South. “But I got an opportunity to play for Team Ontario at age 13 or 14. And I went to a youth Team Canada camp in California. Every year, I slowly improved and fell in love with it.”
A long-time Canadian national junior- and senior- team player, Djerkovic enrolled at Pacific in Stockton, California (half way between San Jose and Sacramento), in 2018. The 2019 Pan Am Games competitor has gone from being a centre defender in his freshman and sophomore years to an offensive scorer as a junior and now a senior, playing the two-metre or hole position in front of the opposition goal.
Pacific defeated Long Beach State 12-6 to win the Golden Coast Conference championship game. Djerkovic accounted for a team-leading four goals, was selected the playoff MVP and was one of three Tigers named to the all-tournament team.
“Right now, there’s a lot of emotions going,” Djerkovic said minutes after Pacific won the conference title in a team press release. “I’m really proud of myself for the MVP, but this is a team effort. This was a complete team effort.
“This wasn’t just today. This is something we’ve been working on together for a year now. This started last year, every day putting in the work, working together, making sure we do what needs to be done.”
That teamwork allowed Pacific to qualify for its fifth NCAA championship. Pacific will play its quarter-final on Thursday against the University of California-Davis. The winner advances to the semifinal against the University of California-Berkeley.
Pacific has played in three of the past five NCAA championship tournaments. It reached the gold-medal game in 2019, losing to Stanford University 13-8, and in 2013, losing in double overtime 12-11 to University of Southern California.
Djerkovic, a mechanical engineering student, is confident of a positive result at his farewell NCAA championship tournament.
“It’s the culture that we have built and how much energy we bring to each game,” he said in an interview. “In 2019 (sophomore year), we had a lot of talent, but we weren’t as together.
“This year, we play for each other and want to die with our brothers. It’s a different feeling.”
Water polo isn’t a high-profile sport in Canada, but Djerkovic learned the game through the Ottawa Titans Water Polo Club program.
Djerkovic has developed into an imposing physical player in a physical game and is one of the biggest centre players on the university circuit. Opposition teams tend to play a zone defence against him rather than a man-to-man defence because of his size.
During Pacific’s 21-6 win-loss season, which earned the Tigers the Golden Coast pennant, Djerkovic paced his squad with 63 goals and was second in the conference. He also was named to the Golden Coast Conference first all-conference team for the second year in a row.
As a junior in 2021, Djerkovic scored 50 goals and added 10 steals and seven field blocks. He has recorded 153 goals in his 96 career games.
“I love my team and there’s nothing I want more than this,” Djerkovic said about his final shot at Pacific’s first-ever NCAA championship.
“We get a chance to compete now for the NCAA championship and that’s what we’ve been working for. The season’s not done, and the job’s not done. Let’s go.”
HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 49 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
HELP SHINE A LIGHT ON LOCAL SPORT! The Ottawa Sports Pages has proudly provided a voice for local sport for over 10 years, but we need your help to continue another 10 and beyond. Please donate to the Ottawa Sports Pages Fund today.