Vatche Shirikjian did not care much for water polo the first time he tried the sport. Navigating the length of a pool while begoggled and in a swimsuit was not Shirikjian's strong suit, so he quit after only a few practices.
"Everyone else was a good swimmer except for me," said Shirikjian, then a seventh-grader. "I said, 'Forget it. I don't want to do it.' "
A year later, for reasons he cannot remember, Shirikjian (pronounced Shi-RIK-Jin) was back in the pool, flailing alongside swifter swimmers. His confidence--and body--again was sinking fast until his coach decided to put those long flailing arms to use in the goal.
Today, Shirikjian is a 6-foot-2 sophomore at Glendale High, the starting goalie for a senior-dominated team expected to make a run at the Pacific League title.
"I realized right from the start I had a gem of a goalie," said Glendale Coach Pat Lancaster, who took over the Dynamiter program when Pete Loporchio left to become coach at Occidental College.
Glendale was 7-2 entering Wednesday's Pacific League opener with Crescenta Valley. Results of that match were not available at press time.
Experience makes the Dynamiters a contender for the league title this year, along with defending champion Hoover, perennial power Muir and Crescenta Valley, which is led by high-scoring Morgan Conrad.
Glendale is led by seniors Chris Petrossian, Bruce Wright, Cheyenne Luck, Anthony Rossi, Chris Jaurigue and Matt Heimerl. The Dynamiters were 13-12 overall and 4-2 in league matches last year.
Much of Glendale's hope is riding on the still broadening shoulders of the 15-yard-old Shirikjian, a member of last season's Dynamiter frosh-soph team that won the league championship.
"Vatche has always been somewhat rambunctious, but he's also a student of the game, which you don't always see in young players," said Loporchio, who moved Shirikjian to the goal when he was 13. "With his size and ability at this point, he could be a major-college player if he continues to develop quickness and speed."
Despite his potential, Shirikjian probably is not the best goalie in the Glendale area this season.
That distinction belongs to Hoover senior Marcello Mazzera, who was selected All-Pacific League last season after helping the Tornadoes to the league title.
But Shirikjian is already being projected to be the best player to come out of the Glendale area by the time his high school career is complete.
"He's the best sophomore goalie I have ever seen," said Lancaster, an assistant for three years at Muir and head coach for seven years at Pasadena.
Shirikjian gained recognition last summer when he was named All-American at the Junior Olympics in Long Beach after helping the USC-based Trojan club team to a second-place finish in the 15-and-under division.
The tournament featured some of the most talented age-group players in Southern California.
"I was surprised when I got the award," Shirikjian said. "But I didn't say, 'Well, I guess I must be the best.' I just kept going. There's a lot of things I need to work on."
Shirikjian's most obvious weak point is a self-critical attitude that sometimes causes him to lose concentration.
"When I have bad games, it's because the other team scores a goal and I don't tell myself, 'It's OK, try harder next time,' " Shirikjian said. "I get all mad at myself and let that break down my attitude for the day.
"I'm getting better at it though, I'm overcoming it."
Shirikjian is already an aggressive and burgeoning shot-blocker.
"Most goalies stay in the cage with the attitude, 'That's our home, we're not coming out,' " said Petrossian, the Dynamiters' leading scorer. "But Vatche will come out four or five yards and steal the ball.
"He's also an excellent passer. He puts the ball right there, like money in the bank."
After this season, Shirikjian will juggle his time between school, swimming for the Glendale team and practicing three times a week at USC with his club team.
It's a commitment that drains Shirikjian's energy, but not his desire to one day play in the Olympic Games.
"After I was in the cage a little while and started improving, I wanted to be the Olympic goalie. If I sit on my butt and say, 'Oh, I'm not quick enough, or I can't do this or that," I'll never get there."