On its face, it may have seemed like just another game between longtime rivals San Luis Obispo and Arroyo Grande.
But the two high schools’ boys water polo match at Sinsheimer Pool on Oct. 8 featured something much more unusual — two native Serbians, guarding each other as respective members of the Tigers and Eagles.
Dragan Dincic played this season for San Luis Obispo, while Luka Vukomanovic played for Arroyo Grande. They were already friends as mutual members of the Partizan club in Belgrade, Serbia before becoming foreign-exchange students.
“It’s much easier when you have someone who speaks your language,” Dincic said of being near Vukomanovic. “This is a great experience.”
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The experience paid off in the pool for both the Eagles and Tigers, as well. Vukomanovic had 60 goals (second-best on the team), 18 assists and 37 steals this year for the Eagles (19-12), who advanced to the quarterfinals of the Southern Section Division IV playoffs. Dincic, by comparison, had team bests of 82 goals and 37 assists for San Luis Obispo, which also qualified for the Division IV playoffs and finished 15-11.
Both Vukomanovic and Dincic said they’d never heard of Arroyo Grande or San Luis Obispo before finding out just days before their departures that they’d been placed there.
“It’s not that famous,” Dincic said.
Once arriving, the two of them tried out for the teams just as any other student at the schools would.
“It was really surprising, to go together from the same country from the same club to (almost) the same city,” Vukomanovic said.
Players’ journey one of a kind
In a community that was rocked by the Mission Prep boys basketball international recruiting scandal in 2006, suspicions of wrongdoing would immediately surface at the mention of exchange students excelling at any high school sport in San Luis Obispo County.
The worry can only be exacerbated in water polo, a sport played at an ultra-competitive level in Europe.
Last year, Serbian goalie Martin Babovic, an exchange student at Corona del Mar, was restricted from competing at the varsity level by the Southern Section, which determined his placement was direct and athletically motivated, as CIF rules call for exchange-student athletes to be randomly placed.
However, both Vukomanovic and Dincic were indeed randomly placed, according to both players, both of their head coaches and Carol Craig, a regional director of PAX Academic Exchange, the foreign-exchange agency that placed them.
In applying to the agency, the players expressed an interest in water polo, Craig said, just as others may express interest in non-athletic pursuits ranging from astronomy or geology to religion, and are then, in turn, randomly placed into environments ideally suitable to those interests.
“A happy child does better,” Craig said of exchange students’ adjustments. “We try to match whatever it is about a student with (a host family with) like interests so there’s camaraderie from the beginning.
“The only thing we try to do with students is to give them a family with some shared interest,” Craig continued. “That may be religion, it may be being a vegetarian, it may be a love of animals.”
One of the boys almost ended up in Michigan, Craig said, but a caretaker in the slated welcome family lost a job. After that, the same boy was almost placed in Colorado, but the intended family there backed out because of economic stress, as well. It was then that the second boy was placed near the other, Craig said — at what just so happened to be a neighboring school, albeit a rival one in a different school district.
It’s no surprise the players both ended up in California, Tigers coach Aaron Sue said, as competitive high school water polo is nearly exclusive to the state.
“It’s just, getting placed here is kind of a crapshoot,” Sue said.
Because the situation was so unusual, the CIF contacted the agency and conducted a thorough investigation that found the boys were indeed randomly placed, Craig said.
“We had no idea they were coming,” Arroyo Grande coach Steven Allen said, adding that Vukomanovic was the first exchange student he’d had during his nine years coaching the Eagles.
Hoping to stay
At their first league meeting Oct. 8, Vukomanovic and Dincic were each cheered on by the Arroyo Grande and San Luis Obispo faithful at Sinsheimer Pool. With both bleachers full, a number of San Luis Obispo students even sat in front of the scorer’s table to voice adulation of Dincic, some holding signs. They both played again Nov. 3.
With the exception of overly sugary, unhealthy food, both Vukomanovic and Dincic said they wouldn’t trade anything about their stays.
“The weather is a lot better,” Dincic laughed.
Both players said they’re trying to earn scholarships that would allow them to continue their careers at American universities.
“Water polo is not seen as much here,” Sue said of the Central Coast compared to recruiting nerve centers circa the Greater Los Angeles area. “We’re in a sort of pocket where college teams don’t get to see us as much.”
Having said that, big-time college coaches aren’t entire strangers to the area. Last year, Eagles driver Jesse Gillespie earned a scholarship to play at national power USC. In particular, Arroyo Grande has learned a great deal about outside shooting from Vukomanovic, Allen said.
“Both of them can play at a high level,” he added.
Because of the lack of a steady stream of scouts in the county because of the area’s sparse population, Sue said, both coaches plan on aggressively marketing their players.
“Both of them have the skill sets to be able to play at the next level,” Sue said. “Especially in America, where water polo’s not as big of a sport, there are only so many kids that have the skill level (Dincic) has. All the guys on the team are happy that he’s here.”