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LBSU water polo’s Croatian sensation

49ers goalie Pavo Ljepopio opens up about his journey from Croatia and his career The Beach.

September 29, 2015

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Fresh out of the water, his brawny stature resembles a warrior returning from battle. His look is one of both exhaustion and satisfaction. He walks with confidence before introducing himself.

“Hi, I’m Pavo,” he says.

This is Pavo Ljepopio, the goalie of the 49ers water polo team. Still dripping with sweat from an evening practice, he sits down and reflects upon just how he got here.

Hailing from Dubrovnik, Croatia, the goalie had to express pride in his hometown and its connection to his current one.

“I’m a big ‘Game of Thrones’ fan,” Ljepopio said. “Funny fact for you ‘Game of Thrones’ fans. My hometown is [the fictional set of] King’s Landing, so I really like that show.”

Ljepopio’s journey to the campus of LBSU was long. Having played water polo since he was 8 years old, Ljepopio faced a crossroads as he approached the end of his high school career in Croatia.

“You either go pro or you choose education,” Ljepopio said. “My older friends that came over here told me that it was amazing, you could go to college and play water polo and if you’re real good you can get a scholarship. That’s when I made up my mind to come here.”

Ljepopio’s first stop in the U.S. was small, Division II Notre Dame College in Ohio before transferring to LBSU for his sophomore year. Such a huge transition with an extreme change of scenery meant that adjustments would be in order for the senior.

“Over here I’m really surprised with the weather,” Ljepopio said. “It feels like summer all the time. I’m real happy with that and people over here are more social than back home. I’m surprised though with how similar our cultures are.”

Ljepopio has seemingly embraced the Southern California culture and has found ways to succeed despite the hectic and busy schedule that’s required of collegiate athletes.

Like Croatian native and former NBA standout Toni Kukoc, Ljepopio is LBSU’s version of “The Croatian Sensation.”

He’s protected the net for LBSU the past three seasons and does it as if he were a dog protecting a bone. The 11.17 saves per game he averages is impressive but doesn’t accurately reflect just how much he means to this team.

“He’s the backbone of the defense,” LBSU head coach Gavin Arroyo said. “His confidence as a senior is saving us defensively.”

The senior goalie had an incredible 2014 campaign resulting in him garnering honorable mention on the All-MPSF and men’s All-American teams. He was also a catalyst for their 22-7 overall record before LBSU’s season ended in a heartbreaking loss to Stanford.

“The expectations were first place but I think we [still] had a successful season. Just lacked a little bit of luck in the final game against Stanford,” Ljepopio said. ”But definitely a success for this program and one of my best years.”

Now, Ljepopio is one of the old guys and is using his aggressiveness in between the goal and all-out effort to be an example for his young teammates. That type of leadership and performance in goal is not lost on his teammates.

LBSU sophomore and fellow Croatian Lovro Miocevic has known him for years inside and outside of the pool. Miocevic knew Ljepopio well before arriving at LBSU. They both played for the same club in their home country, HAVK Mladost, and they are now roommates.

“I think that I am closer to him than I am with the rest of the team,” Miocevic said. “In the pool, especially during the game, he gets emotional. That is his way of playing this sport. Outside of the pool he is a very funny person, and sometimes you cannot figure out if he is joking or not. But when you need him as a friend, he is a real one.”

With less than three months until his time walking the campus and patrolling the cages at LBSU comes to an end, Ljepopio can’t help but think about his legacy and his time with the 49ers.

“I feel sad because I know it’s only three more months of college water polo left. I’m definitely proud with what I have achieved here,” Ljepopio said. “I’m happy with the people I’ve met here. There have been lots of amazing people and lots of amazing experiences.”

Ljepopio is undecided on his path after graduation, but one thing is for sure: he came such a long way from Croatia that going back where he began is out of the question at the moment.

Ljepopio said, “I don’t want to go back home yet.”

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