Masked man Toni Rocak leads UC San Diego to fast start in Big West


SAN DIEGO – Toni Rocak took a long road to San Diego. But the UCSD men’s basketball senior has found a home with the Tritons — and has them leading the pack in the Big West after the first weekend of conference play.

The 6-foot-9 swingman was born in Croatia, moved to Switzerland at age 3 and after graduating from high school, went to New Hampshire for a year of prep school. He then went to Denver where he played at NCAA Division II level for Regis College before arriving at UCSD in 2020.

“It definitely took me some time getting use to the culture here, the people, the food, the language,” Rocak said Tuesday. “I mean, you name it. But I found my groove and I’m pretty happy now.”

After his 6,000-mile journey, Rocak became a starter this year and has helped the Tritons to a 2-0 start in the Big West. His play helped him earn the conference player of the week award for the second time.

And he’s doing it while wearing a mask on the court after breaking his nose in a team practice last month.

“The mask, it’s been a process,” he said. “First of all, to come back because I took a little break to get surgery and all that. But you know, your vision is reduced in the mask. Sweat is constantly falling in your eyes. It’s a challenge.”

However, he’s gotten used to it, particularly since he also broke his nose his sophomore year at Regis.

“I don’t know what it is,” he said. “It’s not my first time wearing it so we can say I’m back in familiar territory. I’m getting a lot of jokes from my old teammates and trainers and stuff. I’m just embracing it and doing the best I can, even with a mask on.”

The 22-year-old speaks four languages and has worked tirelessly on his game throughout his career. The biggest improvement he’s seen came last summer when he competed on the Swiss national team.

“Being able to be surrounded by professionals 24-7, I was just trying to be like a sponge, you know?” he said. “Absorb as much information and feedback as I could. I ended up having a great summer, you know, and putting up good numbers.”

He adds: “I didn’t come there and have that feeling and groove right away. It was a process and again it came with the trust of me and my teammates but also with the coaches. That summer, I think, was huge in terms of my development.”

UC San Diego is scheduled to play next at 7:30 p.m. Thursday on the road against UC Riverside. They are slated to return to Rimac Arena on Jan. 20 against Long Beach State.

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