Greek phenom never gave up USC dream

Luckily for Kostas Genidounias, life gives out opportunities for redemption.

After taking the long road to USC from Greece and missing five weeks with a broken finger last season, life is pretty good now for the 6-foot-1 sophomore driver.

Firepower · Sophomore driver Kostas Genidounias was the Trojans’ third-leading scorer with 31 goals in 2011, despite missing five games after breaking his finger. This year, he has already tallied seven goals in four games. – Ralf Cheung | Daily Trojan

USC is favored to win its fifth consecutive NCAA men’s water polo title this season, and Genidounias is helping lead the way as one of the Trojans’ most potent offensive threats. Yet all of this once seemed like a distant dream for the Athens native.

Genidounias started playing water polo at age seven, and by 13, he was training with the Greek national team.

His parents, Sofaklis and Lilly, wanted him and his three siblings to attend school abroad, so he attended the American Community School of Athens starting in the eighth grade.

His rise to being one of Greece’s top amateur water polo prospects became Genidounias’s ticket to an American education. He had his sights set on USC.

“[Genidounias] called me out of the blue and said he wanted to be a Trojan,” USC coach Jovan Vavic said.

Unfortunately, Vavic was out of scholarships when recruiting Genidounias. During his senior year of high school, Genidounias waited for the phone call that never came. He emailed Vavic but received news that he wouldn’t be able to attend USC during the 2010-11 academic year.

Nonetheless, Genidounias remained steadfast in his desire to go to USC. So even when Loyola Marymount called and offered him a full ride, he turned it down.

He stayed in Greece and continued to play water polo for his club team and the Greek National Under-18 squad.

Then came his breakout performance at the European Youth Championships in Germany during August 2010. Though Greece lost 12-13 to Italy in the championship match, Genidounias was named the tournament’s MVP and vaulted himself onto the radar of Vavic and the nation’s other top college water polo coaches.

In October 2010, despite having no interactions since the previous spring, Genidounias contacted Vavic again.

In this case, the second time was the charm. Genidounias’ improvement combined with available scholarships meant that the USC dream would work out after all.

After high school graduation, Genidounias’ days consisted of playing water polo for his U-18 club team.

“It was nice,” Genidounias said. “Who doesn’t want to have some time off?” Genidounias said.

But his mood quickly changed.

“At some point it became boring … I’m glad I got to come here,” Genidounias said.

Genidounias’ success in the pool continued once he reached USC. Being a bit of an unknown commodity to opponents as an international player, Genidounias flew under the radar for five games.

In his sixth game as a true freshman, he scored five goals in a 10-8 victory over UCLA in the championship match of the NorCal Tournament in Stockton, Calif.

“When UCLA played us, they had no idea who he was,” said captain and senior two-meter Matt Burton. “The five goals changed that pretty quick.”

After that, Genidounias was not left open often. But, he still continued to have success thanks to his versatility.

“Kostas is one of the extremely rare players who’s an extremely good shooter and a great passer,” Vavic said.

Burton echoed these sentiments with a basketball analogy.

“Kostas is like a point guard and shooting guard rolled into one,” Burton said. “He has great vision, can make a play from nothing and is just too dangerous as a pass-first guy.”

Genidounias finished third on the team with 31 goals last season and is currently second through four games with seven goals.

What’s even more intimidating for opponents is Genidounias is now at full health.

His counting statistics at season’s end would have been much greater if he hadn’t missed five games after breaking his finger in a midseason match against California.

Water polo is a sport where using both hands is crucial for balance and strength in the water. With his broken finger, Genidounias’ left hand essentially became useless.

“I did nothing with my left hand for four to five weeks after the injury,” Genidounias said. “All I could do was swim with one hand and work on my legs.”

Though Genidounias wanted to return as soon as possible, he wasn’t in top shape when he returned just in time for the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament and the NCAA Final Four that followed.

“In some ways, it was a good thing,” Vavic said about Genidounias’ injury. “Kostas needed a break from water polo after playing all year, during the summer and the season.”

Back from injury, 2012 is Kostas’ time to shine. Though Vavic and Genidounias agree his defense still needs work, his offensive abilities are already giving opponents fits.

“On offense, the sky is pretty much the limit [for him],” Burton said.

With Greece in ongoing economic turmoil, Genidounias has gained extra motivation and appreciation for the sport that helped bring him to Southern California.

“Everyone’s so jealous in a good way that I’m here, and I’m really doing something good for my future,” Genidounias said.