The return of high school water polo this spring after a one-year absence caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is good news for three local programs.
One is eager to maintain its now-perennial status as a state contender, another has a new but familiar face at the helm and another hopes its young talent will develop.
In 2012 under the guidance of head coach Doug Eichstaedt, Lyons Township High School became the first public high school in Illinois to win a boys state water polo championship. The Lions won another title three years later and have become a regular participant in the state finals.
Last spring, LTHS believed it had a good possibility of winning a third championship thanks to a talented nucleus led by Bobby Bolen. Unfortunately, that dream was dashed as the season fell victim to COVID-19.
This spring, the Lions are thrilled to be back in action, according to Eichstaedt.
“It’s great to be practicing and competing with the team,” he said. “There was just a lot of excitement about the chance to play and compete this season.”
Top returning players for LTHS are senior captains Lian Malaysia, Sebastián Pérez, and Jack Walsh, along with senior Michael Schoneman and juniors Jack Bradbury and Jimmy Bolan.
Eichstaedt looks for freshman goalkeeper Charlie Vik to make an effective impact on the Lions, who expect to be strong defensively and feature plenty of depth.
“We have a lot of strong leaders on this team, and everyone is really working well together,” he said. “Our goals are to be the best team that we can be and for each individual to be the best they can be.”
LTHS is off to a 2-1 start this season, having defeated Morton 21-1 and Fenwick 21-8, while losing to Stevenson 14-9. The Lions anticipate being in position for another run at a state title. Meanwhile, Eichstaedt feels his team has fared well with dealing with the uncertainties the pandemic has presented.
“I think the players have done a great job of handling the ups and downs of the last year,” he said. “We’ve been able to take advantage of some opportunities when practices were able to open up, and it was great that they were able to get a swim season in during the winter.”
Fenwick has a new leader for this season as former player and assistant coach Elizabeth Timmons takes over from longtime head coach Jack Wagner, who retired last year.
“I know I have a lot to prove and live up to in this role,” said Timmons, a 2004 Fenwick graduate, in an email. “It won’t be easy to fill the shoes of those who have come before me, including Jack Wagner and Dave Perry — my first coach and dad. I’m hoping to continue the tradition of excellence and am excited for all the possibilities to come in the future.”
While there isn’t the same amount of experience on the team as usual, Timmons feels a mix of talented newcomers along with the few returning veterans should make for a competitive team. Yet she also admits it may take some time for the Friars to jell as a unit.
“Having less pool time due to COVID-19 has meant a little restructuring. I am still figuring out the best places to use people as I get to know the girls and their individual strengths,” Timmons said. “This year will definitely be fluid as we will be making adjustments so I can ensure we are utilizing each player to their maximum potential.”
The faces may be different, but the goal of the Fenwick program remains the same: to improve as the season progresses and be in position to vie for a state title. Under Wagner, the Friars amassed 10 state championships. Timmons believes the team can build upon this legacy, but it will take plenty of work to accomplish this.
“I believe the girls are excited to continue this tradition this year, but in order to be successful, we need to get a little more cohesion with the group we have,” she said. “We’re looking forward to the postseason opportunities, but we have a lot of work to do before we get there.”
The Bulldogs don’t have a lot of experience as a result of missing last season. But Riverside-Brookfield High School is off to a solid start this spring with a 2-1 record, with wins over Bremen and Shepard and a loss to Jones College Prep.
Entering his sixth season, head coach Kevin Wolak is happy to be back after not playing last season.
“Our top returning players are seniors Dayton Gaughan, Peter Kallas, and Clayton Stewart,” he said. “They provide leadership.”
Gaughan is RBHS’ leading scorer so far with 15 goals and six assists. Stewart (8 goals), Kallas (5 goals) and junior Liam Matthews (5 goals) have also been key contributors on the attack. Junior Alec Wilkowski has been a stabilizing influence at goalkeeper for the Bulldogs.
There’s also a core of young talent led by sophomore Liam Coombs and freshmen Lucas Hendrich, Alex Jacobs, and Hayden Marrs. Wolak believes the three freshmen show promise and will be good with more experience.
The goal for RBHS this season will be to develop its younger talent. Wolak says the players not only handled the adversity of the past year well, but that the program has gained a surprising benefit from it.
“Despite not having a season last year, we actually have more players than last year,” he said.
The RBHS girls water polo team has not hit the pool just yet, as their first two contests were cancelled; the first due to a positive COVID case on the opposing team from Fenwick, the second due to Bremen not being able to field enough players.
Although the team is smaller in numbers than in years past, coach Todd Fridrych said he’s confident that the team can be successful as they get ready to play their first match.
“We have seven strong players this season,” he said. “Our four seniors on the varsity team had some great experience at the varsity level prior to the pandemic. The seniors will be huge contributors for us this season.”
Seniors Sophie Bruno, Amanda Schwarz and Brooke and Grace Wubbolding will be counted on this season for their leadership. Juniors Gillian Dowling, Allie Brand and CeCe Rosa will also help the Bulldogs seek success this season.
“I expect really good things from these players,” Fridrych said. “In addition, our goalie [senior Bella Gutierrez] has some experience and a very strong arm which will greatly benefit our counterattack.”
Lauren Recchia contributed to this report.