As he sits in baseball offices named for his great-grandfather Herbert — adjacent to the field his older brother played on just four years ago — sophomore slugger Lars Nootbaar insists that his path to USC was not based on family.
“My grandpa and grandma came here, and my older brother [Nigel] played baseball here,” Nootbaar said. “But for me, that doesn’t really mean much. They just so happened to go to the same school as me.”
For Nootbaar, his goal has always been to carve his own path outside of his lofty family name. After all, he originally wanted to be a big-time college quarterback, not a USC baseball player like his brother. At El Segundo High School, Nootbaar was a dual-threat talent who threw for over 2,000 yards in both of his final seasons. But when he didn’t receive the same caliber of scholarship offers for football as he did for baseball, Nootbaar chose the school and sport his family is inextricably tied to.
“After playing high school football through my junior and senior year, I built a lot of good relationships,” Nootbaar said. “It was very tough [giving up football], but being able to play baseball here is another dream come true.”
While the standout baseball player is grateful to suit up on the diamond rather than the gridiron, the quietly self-assured Nootbaar believes he would be a successful quarterback in the Pac-12 — though he stopped short of saying he could have led USC to a Rose Bowl win like friend and fellow sophomore standout Sam Darnold.
“I’m definitely confident in my ability, but probably not [at Darnold’s level] if I’m being real,” Nootbaar said about his prowess with the pigskin.
Considering Nootbaar’s play so far this season, it’s hard to question his decision to focus fully on baseball. He’s currently hitting .317, leading the Trojans in RBIs (25) and home runs (5).
Fans have become accustomed to seeing Nootbaar produce big hits in clutch situations. Against Long Beach State in February, he launched a two-run homer in the eighth inning to tie the game and ultimately lead his team to an extra-inning victory. On an even bigger stage in March versus UCLA at Dodger Stadium, Nootbaar’s 10th-inning RBI double ended the Bruins’ hopes for a victory.
Nootbaar chalks up his penchant for game-breaking plays to both confidence and repetition.
“I would say it’s definitely both mental and physical,” Nootbaar said. “I envision having success in those certain situations, but confidence is a big thing that I’ve gained over the past year. Last year as a freshman, sometimes I would go up there and try to do too much, and this year it’s just knowing that I’ll get the job done.”
In many ways, it’s difficult to compare Nootbaar’s freshman season to his performances this spring. Last year, he was a young prospect in a lineup filled with experienced standouts such as Jeremy Martinez and David Oppenheim. Nootbaar started 29 games but only showed flashes of what was to come in his sophomore campaign, finishing the season hitting .238 with just one homer. But with this year’s roster losing 12 players to the 2016 MLB Draft, Nootbaar has been forced into a leading role, one that he has proven to be suited for.
But contrasted with Nootbaar’s rapid rise, his team has been slumping. The Trojans currently hold a 18-20 record, having lost 12 of their last 15 games, most recently suffering a sweep to Cal on the road last weekend.
“We’re a young team,” Nootbaar said. “But it almost works in our favor because sometimes we don’t even know what we’re doing out there. Sometimes, when we’re hot, we don’t really know what we’re doing so we just ride with it. But other times, when we’re cold, it’s tough for us to get out of there because we don’t have that experience to know how to pull the team together.”
While this season has seen its fair share of inconsistency and shortcomings, the team’s lack of success has done little to dampen Nootbaar’s ambitions for USC, the most decorated program in college baseball history with 12 national championships.
As he sits in the Herbert V. Nootbaar Baseball Office, Lars Nootbaar asserts that it was not his family’s legacy that brought him to USC. And perhaps he is telling the truth. Perhaps he had to go to the place where his family had already made their mark in order to try and make his.
“I want to definitely win a Pac-12 championship,” Nootbaar said. “That’s why I came here: I wanted to put USC back on top.”