In late August, Bellevue sophomore AJ Rossman traveled to Montenegro and Serbia to represent the United States Cadet National Team in the Darko Cucic Memorial Invitational. Rossman was one of just 13 athletes from across the country — and the only athlete from outside of California — chosen to represent Team USA in the prestigious tournament. Rossman earned his selection after a nine month tryout process that began at a local ODP Camp in November 2014.
Rossman started every game and helped guide the United States to seventh place against the best youth teams in the world. Joining Rossman on the squad were 13 of the best rising freshman and sophomores in the country.
Rossman’s selection marked the second straight year in which a Bellevue Wolverine earned a starting spot on a US National Team travel squad. Last summer, recent graduate and Stanford-bound Marco Stanchi was the starting center for the US Youth National Team and participated in the FINA Youth World Championships in Istanbul, Turkey.
We recently asked AJ to recount his once-in-a-lifetime experience representing his country in Europe:
Nine….That’s the number of days I spent in Seattle during the summer between my freshman and sophomore year at Bellevue High School.
I spent so few nights at home because I was training and competing in Long Beach, CA and Europe as a member of the Cadet National Team for USA Water Polo.
Several weeks were spent in Long Beach preparing for the Darko Cucic tournament in Serbia. I was one of 13 boys from the Jr. National Team selected to travel to Serbia, and the only one selected from outside of California.
Our coach, Gavin Arroyo, is the current Long Beach State Coach. Gavin is a two time Olympic water polo player and played on the U.S. National Team for eight years. He shared a lot of new drills and taught us interesting techniques and strategies, using funny stories and analogies to get his point across. Everyone on the team thought he was an outstanding coach and mentor. He’s the only coach I know who can make similarities between passing and fishing.
We left for Europe on August 3rd, and spent one week training in Montenegro, a former Yugoslavian country on the Adriatic coast. It’s a 9 hour time difference from Seattle, but the coaches had us in the pool within 30 minutes of arriving, so it didn’t take us long to adjust. Our hotel was in the town of Herceg Novi and included an indoor pool where we could easily roll out of bed and practice twice a day. We practiced and scrimmaged with the Montenegro Cadet National team throughout the week to prepare for the tournament.
Between practices, we did get to explore Montenegro. There was a market near our hotel where we all bought inexpensive t-shirts and shorts. I was able to get a soccer jersey for 10 Euro (about $10), much cheaper than in the U.S. The beaches were beautiful. One of the three coaches with us on the trip was from Serbia so one day he arranged a boat trip for us to explore the coastline filled with caves and rocky beaches. And, one night we went out for dinner and ate fish that had literally just been pulled from the sea.
At the end of the first week, we took a bus up to Dubrovnik in Croatia to train in the sea. The beach already had a rectangular set of buoys to outline the space where we would play, and we just had to drop in goals at each end. It was difficult to train in the sea because the water is so salty, but the cove where we played was beautiful and the water was really clear.
While we worked hard in the water, our week in Montenegro was awesome. Everyone had packed a suitcase full of food as we were told prior to the trip that the food wasn’t very good. We were surprised to eat a lot of great meals at the hotel during this first week – beef stew with vegetables, pepperoni and salami, cheeses, and lots of great pastries.
Once we wrapped up training that first week, it was off to Serbia. The tournament was played in a town 2 hours south of Belgrade called Kragejuvac.
We stayed in a dorm-like building that housed all the athletes. Our rooms were across the hall from the Serbian team and a lot of late nights were spent talking to them. We also shared our food with them as they weren’t allowed to leave the dorm. Our coaches let us leave the building as needed, primarily to buy food as the food served in the cafeteria was largely inedible.
There were 14 experienced teams competing in the tournament, including the best of Eastern Europe such as Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary. Unlucky for us, our first three games were against these teams. Serbia beat us soundly in the first game. The games between Croatia and Hungary were tight, but we ended up losing by three goals in each game. We finally tied Slovakia. And, then we defeated Australia and France handedly. While France was the least talented team, they liked to fight the most. I received several punches to the face and many other guys on my team got in fights with the French players.
Our final game was against Germany, and we beat them 10-7 to finish in 7th place.
At the end of the tournament it was time for trading. This is when all the teams trade their t-shirts, jackets, backpacks or other gear for that of another country. One of my teammates knew one of the Italians so he negotiated a trade for me. The Italian gear was the most desired, so I had to trade my USA jacket just to get a t-shirt. The Hungarian team also had some really cool gear that they were willing to trade. One of the players was offering a brand new plush robe and I was able to give him 60 Euro for it.
During our trip home after so many hours of training and competition, my parents asked me what I missed the most about being away.
That was easy to answer. “My bed.”
My experience with the Cadet National Team process this year was incredible. Despite the countless hours of training and hard work, the rewards were great. Playing on the National Team gave me the opportunity to see a part of the world I might never see again while getting to compete against some of the best teams in the world. I also made great friendships and have new memories I will never forget.