Volleyball: Stevenson grad Antonijevic has shot to make national team
Updated: October 15, 2012 1:51PM
COLORADO SPRINGS — Only 18 volleyball players were selected to train this month in Colorado Springs for the 2012 U.S. Men’s U-21 National Volleyball team.
Former Stevenson star middle blocker Nikola Antonijevic was one of them.
Only 12 will make the team.
“It’s intense but fun,” said Antonijevic, a 6-foot-8, 206-pound sophomore-to-be at Pepperdine. “Any one of us could be told at any time, ‘Hey, we don’t need you.’ ”
A meal for an army, or two, was awaiting Antonijevic when he spoke from Colorado during a break Saturday afternoon.
“I have some plates full of food ready to go,” said the 2011 Stevenson graduate. “Pasta, a nice salad, beef and chicken, vegetables ... all the essentials.”
Antonijevic ate to fuel up for soccer, not volleyball, as a youngster growing up in Buffalo Grove. His father, Sole, played professional soccer for a club in Europe. But a fork in Nik’s sports road appeared when he was a sophomore at Stevenson: soccer or volleyball. Volleyball had entered the picture after Antonijevic made a Lake Zurich-based Rolling Thunder team.
“I had a long talk with my father before I chose volleyball,” said Antonijevic. “I mentioned how much I loved volleyball after I told him I loved soccer and him. He then told me, ‘Prove to me how much you want to play volleyball.’ ”
Nik Antonijevic was a 6-5 soccer forward before deciding to use his hands and length full-time to block spike attempts. He proved hard to stop as he excelled for the Patriots and was named an AVCA All-American after his senior season. In 2010 he played on the U.S. Boys Youth National team (U-19) that finished runner-up at the NORCECA Continental Championship in Guadalajara, Mexico.
He then suited up for Pepperdine, a perennial D-I power.
“Playing at Pepperdine as a freshman helped me build my volleyball IQ,” Antonijevic said. “My role my first year was to bring that fire, that intensity to each match.
“What a huge change that was for me, going from the Midwest to the West Coast. Different people, different teachers, different lifestyle and all kinds of distractions in Malibu. It was like getting a big smack in the face.”
His favorite athlete in the world smacks overheads and groundstrokes for a living. His name is Novak Djokovic, a top-ranked tennis player from Serbia — the Antonijevic family’s heritage.
“He’s a great athlete, phenomenal with fans,” said Antonijevic. “He represents his homeland so well. I’ve always believed it’s important to follow great athletes, to want to be like great athletes. And I’ve always enjoyed watching Novak compete against the world’s best tennis players.”
If Antonijevic makes the U-21 national team, he’ll compete at the NORCECA Continental Championship in Colorado Springs Aug. 25-Sept. 2. The top three teams from the event qualify for the 2013 FIVB Men’s Junior World Championship.
Penn State sophomore-to-be Aaron Russell is like Antonijevic — and not just because he also happens to be a formidable (6-9) middle blocker. He’s also vying to be one of the 12 chosen at this month’s U-21 training camp.
The pair roomed together at a USA Age Group Select camp a few years ago.
“Nik,” Russell said, “is definitely easy-going, a fun loving guy, one of the biggest clowns around. But that light spirit he brings is good to have when people around him are feeling down.”
What’s usually not good is going up against Antonijevic while attempting to pound a volleyball.
“To be a good blocker takes discipline and an ability to read a setter well,” added Russell. “Nik has those abilities. He times blocks well, closes blocks well. In general he’s got a great attitude toward the sport and he loves to do whatever he has to do in order to improve.”
The next Summer Olympics will be staged in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2016. Antonijevic will be 23 then, probably still hurting volleyballs and clowning around with elite players to add some valuable levity.
“I’ll still be a young gun,” he said. “Right now all I want to do is strive to get better each year.”