Junior and third-year starting goalie Charlie Vlk has been through this scenario before with the Lyons Township High School boys water polo team.
In 2022, the Lions had several question marks after graduating most of their lineup from the 2021 second-place state lineup. They posted a 30-3 record and finished third for the program’s fourth consecutive top-three state trophy in the past four state tournaments.
“That’s the one thing about this program and [LTHS coach Doug Eichstaedt]. He does a great job, building players when they’re young,” Vlk said.
These Lions face the same dilemma.
Vlk, who was fourth-team all-state and second-team all-sectional, and senior left attacker Sean Gripp are the only returning starters. Vlk made 236 saves in 2022 and Gripp had 20 goals and 32 assists, third on the team.
Senior center defender Louis Grib (9 goals, 3 assists), senior Kieran Athy (6 goals, 4 assists), junior attackers Luke Jackson (16 goals, 12 assists) and Brendan Whelton (5 goals, 20 assists), junior center Michael Wall (12 goals, 3 assists) and junior goalie Steven Strandberg (64 saves) also saw significant varsity action.
Newcomers are juniors Michael Avakian, Sam Garvin, Sam Perez, Laine Tegan and Josh Vander Wagen and sophomore Sami Rabah.
Last year, the Lions beat Stevenson 12-11 in triple overtime for third in state after losing to eventual champion New Trier 9-6 in the semifinals.
“I’ve taken two losses in the state tournament, so I know for me especially I’m really looking to get a win this year and put it away,” Vlk said.
“My biggest goal [as a returnee] is to keep everybody focused and serious throughout the workouts. I feel as a goalie you can almost do it better because you’re kind of like the captain on the defensive side. You’re calling out switches and orienting the defense.”
Vlk is the only returnee among the Lions’ five postseason honored players. Graduated are multiple first-team all-stater Jack Bradbury, second-team all-staters Jimmy Bolan and AJ Vitek, and third-team all-sectional Matt Jablonski. Eichstaedt was sectional coach of the year. Bradbury, Bolan and Vitek were the team’s top three scorers with 268 combined goals.
“Every year there’s opportunities for players to kind of step up to the different roles. Last year, we had arguably the best player in the state (Bradbury with 126 goals) but we relied a lot on him to score whereas I think the team this year will be more balanced,” Eichstaedt said.
“I know this group is going to work hard and they’re very coachable,” Eichstaedt said. “They all understand and embrace the expectations. It’s a journey so trying to navigate it, stay positive. It’s kind of their turn to step up and take it.”
Another indication of the Lions’ success is having more than 50 players in the program — the most that Eichstaedt can remember. Former LTHS boys water polo standout Victor Perez has been added as a junior varsity coach.
“That allows for more teamwork. It’s good opportunities for everyone to get more coaching and more experience,” Eichstaedt said. “Obviously the goal is to raise the level of play on all levels of the program.”
In their opening action on March 11, the Lions lost to Stevenson 12-8 in the championship game of the Stevenson Tournament after beating Whitney Young 10-2 and Fremd 15-5.
“I think our key to success will be learning to play together,” Vlk said. “I’ve never played with these guys my whole life, really. If we can learn to work together as a team, I think we’ll be good.”