By Marty Farmer
Entering the state playoffs this week, the Fenwick and Oak Park and River Forest High School boys and girls water polo teams own a collective 93-18-1 record, including three conference championships, all won over the weekend. In fact, the only group among the high-achieving foursome who settled for a runner-up showing in its league meet was the Fenwick boys team, the defending state champs. If each of the four teams win their opening two playoffs game, both the boys and girls Fenwick and OPRF squads will battle for sectional titles at Lyons Township Saturday.
Starting with the vaunted Fenwick boys squad, which has won nine of the past 10 state titles, here's a recap of each team's season to date and postseason outlook:
While the Friars' 9-8 loss to Loyola in the Metro Catholic Aquatic Conference boys water polo championship match was a mild upset, the team remains a major contender and arguably the favorite to bring home another state title. The Friars ooze talent, including Danny Farmer (87 goals, 40 steals), Omar Calderon (31 goals, 35 assists, 50 steals), David Durkin (23 goals, 19 assists), Ryan Masi (43 goals, 55 steals), Andrew Bertschy (41 assists, 62 steals) and Bailey Wendt (32 goals, 31 assists). Junior D.J. Perez is a defensive ace off the bench and junior goalie Mike Hill has amassed 17 saves and 40 steals this spring.
"All three of our losses have been by one goal," Fenwick coach Kyle Perry said. "Our defense is still a work in progress. A lot of our juniors are still trying to figure out what it takes to be successful at the varsity level on both ends of the pool.
"We're looking forward to the challenge of the Lyons Township Sectional where we could see St. Patrick, Lyons Township, and OPRF. Keeping our composure and cool under pressure will be what helps us through these tough games."
Perry added that Fenwick, OPRF, St. Patrick and the host Lions are all capable of winning the sectional and advancing to the state finals.
Despite a stacked sectional, history favors the Friars. Since 1974, Fenwick has claimed 20 state titles in boys water polo, including 10 of the 12 state championships since water polo became an IHSA sport in 2002.
OPRF boys water polo
The Huskies roll into the playoffs with plenty of momentum after Saturday's dramatic 8-7 victory against host Lyons Township in the championship match of the West Suburban Conference Silver Division.
When the Huskies' best player, Mark Hallman, drew an ejection with one minute left in the fourth quarter of a 7-7 tie against Lyons Township, junior attacker Joshua Gronwold stepped up with a game-winning goal to make the score 8-7 with 44 seconds left in the game. Hallman tallied a team-high three goals and promising freshman attacker Robbie Wickes contributed two goals en route to the coveted championship.
OPRF, which split four meetings with the Lions this season, won its first conference tournament title since 2010. The surging Huskies will look to build on their recent success when the playoffs open this week.
"We have performed well this year," OPRF coach John Rapp said. "I think we're definitely improving every week, which is important. We need to get better with our defensive awareness and decision-making offensively if we want to be successful at the sectional."
Hallman, one of the best players in the state and a four-year varsity member, is a tremendous utility player with great defensive skills and awareness. Along with Hallman, Alex West (senior utility), Louie Kertgen (senior goalie), Lawrence Cozzi (sophomore attacker), Kevin Perez (junior attacker), James Kelley (senior attacker) and Lee Werner (senior utility) make up the nucleus of a deep, highly skilled squad. Senior attacker Chris Brandt, Wickes and Gronwold have also contributed to the Huskies' success.
"Louie played goalie for our JV team for three years and finally got his opportunity to play this year," Rapp said. "His performance is a huge reason we have almost 20 wins."
Fenwick girls water polo
Like the OPRF boys team, the Fenwick girls squad won its conference championship in the waning moments of a great match. Senior Colleen Barron rocked the left post with a big shot and then scored off her own rebound with 35 seconds remaining in regulation to lift the Friars past St. Ignatius 8-7 in the MCAC championship match.
Barron's late-match heroics should come as no surprise, considering she has 65 goals, 13 assists and 31 steals this season. Fellow senior Alexa Ovalle (20 goals, 28 assists, 17 steals) and sophomore Catie Wallace (55 goals, 22 assists, 37 steals) have also enjoyed stellar campaigns under coach Jack Wagner. Maggie Sheean, Bridget Carey, Olivia Wendt, Janette Angelini and Lexi Buglio are other top contributors for Fenwick.
"Our team has performed well and learned this season," Wagner said. "Each practice and game, we focus on getting better."
Fenwick is vying for its 7th state championship this season.
OPRF girls water polo
Of the four in-town water polo programs, the OPRF girls' rise has been the most notable. Led by stars Katie Appell and Jordin Hale, the Huskies (24-2) appear every bit as dangerous as rival Fenwick in terms of winning a state championship this spring.
The Mercyhurst College-bound Appell leads OPRF in goals (103), steals (53) and kickouts drawn, while Hale (320 saves, 88 goals allowed, 31 steals) is one of the premier goalies in the state. The close friends are also on the Olympic Development program team and extremely committed to the sport. Other stat leaders for OPRF include Genevieve Curry (60 goals, 37 assists, 73 steals) and Jilly Cronin (34 goals, 68 steals).
OPRF edged Lyons Township 6-4 in overtime on Saturday to claim the West Suburban Conference Silver Division championship. Appell paced the Huskies with three goals and six steals, while Curry scored twice and had five steals and three assists. Mia Andreoli chipped in a goal and Hale finished with 18 saves against the Lions. En route to the Huskies' first conference title since 2007, Kevan Casson, Anna Vogel, Maddie Wolfe, Claire Rolfes, Elizabeth Williams, Maura Dahl and Elena Levi D'Ancona also contributed for the victors.
"We have done a great job of adapting this season to our competition and to the referees where needed," OPRF coach Beth Perez said. "One of the greatest benefits of this season is that our girls came to us with a higher knowledge base. They have played together longer and are able to take in more and more advanced things quicker and earlier than before."
On the boys side, Fenwick and OPRF (with two wins apiece) would meet in Saturday's 11 a.m. Lyons Township Sectional championship match. The same scenario applies for the girls squads. If Fenwick and OPRF win two matches each, they will square off in Saturday's 12:15 p.m. Lyons Township Sectional title match. For complete playoff pairings, visit ihsa.org., then click sports & activities, and scroll down to water polo.
"[Fenwick] is a great team and we definitely respect them a lot," Hale said. "Nobody likes each other during the games in water polo, but they're a great school and a great community. Everybody wants to win when we're up against each other."
Added Wagner: "It's great having another great team like OPRF in the same town. We are able to compete and learn from each other."