Sam Slobodien wasn’t a household name for the Santa Margarita boys’ water polo team.
He left a lasting impression as in senior in 2014 though, breaking the school record for goals in a single season.
Four years later, Slobodien left an even bigger mark on the USC men’s team, scoring the game-winning goal in the final seconds of an NCAA tournament semifinal against cross-town rival UCLA.
Slobodien would score two more goals in the NCAA championship win against Stanford two days later, helping the Trojans clinch its first national championship since 2013.
Slobodien is back for his senior year at USC, and so are seven of the other top eight goals scorers from last season, making the Trojans a clear frontrunner to repeat as NCAA champions.
There will be one major change from last season’s team, however.
Jovan Vavic, who had coached USC since 1992, was fired in March after he was indicted in the sweeping college admissions cheating scandal.
Marko Pintaric is currently the interim head coach after serving as an assistant for the past 18 years.
USC opens play September 14 at the Inland Empire Invitational in Claremont.
Just like his stay at USC is unfolding, Slobodien didn’t make much noise at Santa Margarita until his junior year.
After making the all-Trinity League second team as a junior in 2013, Slobodien was handed more offensive responsibilities as a senior. With that in mind, he developed more ways to put the ball in the back of the net, scoring a school-record 106 goals and handing out 77 assists.
When his senior season ended, Slobodien still had not decided on a college, but ultimately chose USC, joining Trinity League MVP Nick Silvers of Mater Dei in the recruiting class.
As he did at Santa Margarita, Slobodien started slowly at USC.
He redshirted his first year, scored 11 goals in his second and then leaped up to sixth on the team with 28 goals as a sophomore in 2017, the same year he was also picked to be on the playoff roster that advanced to the finals of the NCAA tournament.
“It’s like a re-born energy,” Slobodien said of the NCAA tournament. “Everyone really, really wants to win, and you can just feel it.”
Heading into last season, Slobodien’s offensive abilities came in handy even more after Thomas Dunstan, a 2016 graduate of Mater Dei who had played for the U.S. Olympic team that summer, quit the USC and national teams for unknown reasons, dropped out of school and still hasn’t returned to the sport.
Slobodien handled the additional responsibilities by scoring 36 goals, none bigger than the game-winner with five seconds left against UCLA, lifting USC to an 8-7 victory in the NCAA tournament semifinal.
That shot came against goalie Alex Wolf, who was the Orange County Register player of the year at Huntington Beach High during Slobodien’s senior year at Santa Margarita.
“We even worked on that play a bunch of times in practice,” Slobodien told reporters afterward. “You just try to finish and execute each play with 100 percent effort and that’s what we did.”
Another ex-Trinity League player on this season’s USC roster is Luke Wyatt, a former Mater Dei standout alongside Dunstan who scored 23 goals for the Trojans last season.