COLUMBIA — On a Saturday night before a game, Columbia College soccer head coach John Klein called Nikola Velickovic to see what his captain was up to.
When the coach asked Velickovic, he answered, "Nothing, playing Risk."
Klein said he was shocked when he heard what Velickovic does with his free time.
Of course, the coach was thrilled to find out that his team's vocal leader was spending Saturday night at home playing a board game.
"That’s the kind of activity I would love (the players) to be doing on a weekend," Klein said. "If it's using their mind, all the better."
Velickovic actually plays Risk more often than weekends. In fact, he plays a lot more. Velickovic, the 25-year-old junior from Cacak, Serbia, said he loves to compete with four friends who are also from Serbia, including teammates Jovan Ilic and Marko Paunovic.
"We have already played three times this week," Velickovic said. "What is today? Thursday?"
He talked about it as though even he knew it was absurd. Each game takes about four or five hours to finish. Somehow, they manage to squeeze in several games per week. Ilic said sometimes they study or do homework while playing Risk.
"We kill Risk," Velickovic said. "It's so competitive."
The Cougars play Westminster College at 6 p.m. Sunday at Westminster Field in Fulton.
Velickovic brings his competitiveness to a new level on the soccer field. He also brings a new level of risk to Columbia College soccer.
Klein said the junior defender takes chances more than the coach would like.
"I don’t want to take his aggressiveness away," Klein said. "He’s such an outstanding player."
Velickovic stands out as the only starting defender not from the St. Louis area.
Klein said the St. Louis defenders play the more conservative, organized style he likes, while Velickovic plays with aggression.
"For whatever reason it’s worked," Klein said. "I don’t know if its anything more than just Nik’s fire."
Velickovic, who said he is almost 6 feet 2 inches tall, uses his size and fire to win jump balls and help the Cougars control the ball.
Klein said defender Tom Vincenc balances Velickovic with a more organized style of play. The coach also said Vincenc helps to calm down Velickovic when he gets angry during games.
"I would do anything it takes," Velickovic said. "Sometimes maybe more than I should."
In a game against Bellevue University on Tuesday, Velickovic had a rare opportunity, as a defender, to score a goal. After a perfect pass from a teammate, the ball floated right in front of him. As he leaned in to head the ball, the Bellevue defender knocked the ball down using his hand. The referee did not see the illegal play, and no call was made. Velickovic was furious. He screamed at the ref.
"On the field he's this big mean bulldog," Vincenc said. "But off the field he’s just like a little kid."
In past seasons, Velickovic's anger sometimes hurt the team, but Klein and Vincenc said Velickovic has controlled his emotions this year. With a more composed Velickovic leading the defense, the Cougars' play has been especially strong this season. They have shut out opponents eight times in the first 11 games. More importantly for Velickovic, they have won nine of those games.
"He wants to win every single time he steps on the field. He'll give it his best, no matter how laid back the practice is," Klein said.