Oak Park and River Forest High School water polo players Jordin Hale and Katie Appell recently took their talents to Southern California.
The Huskies' highly skilled tandem joined the Lyons Township girls water polo team to participate in the Junior Olympics in Orange County from July 27 thru August 4. Hale and Appell, a junior goalie and senior hole set, respectively, were just two of three players chosen from outside of Lyons Township to join the select squad. The team took 12th place out of 24 teams in the 16U Gold Championship division, and finished 36th out of approximately 100 teams overall. Hale and Appell relished the chance to represent the Midwest in competition against the top teams and elite players in the country.
"I felt great about representing Chicago and the Midwest in general," Hale said. "Seeing what all the different teams from around the country had to offer and seeing how we could compete against them was interesting."
Appell also enjoyed the opportunity to match up against outstanding teams from all over the United States.
"It was an amazing experience being able to represent the Chicago area," Appell said. "All week, parents of players from other teams asked where we were from and they were surprised to hear Chicago. Their reply usually was, 'Chicago has water polo?' There were only a few Midwest teams that went out to Junior Olympics this year. I'm happy that Lyons was one of those teams."
OPRF girls water polo head coach Elizabeth Perez was thrilled to see her two burgeoning stars experience competition at a different level.
"I was really excited for them," Perez said. "They both really love water polo and going after every opportunity, so I wasn't surprised that they were chosen to go."
On the third day of the tournament, the Lyons Township team squared off against the San Diego Shores, regarded as one of the best programs in the country. The Lions led by a goal before the Shores tied the hard-fought game with a minute left in regulation. The Shores eventually prevailed 3-2 in a shootout to claim the victory. Appell felt truly energized after keeping pace with the highly regarded Shores.
"That game was crazy," Appell said. "It was a bummer losing [the game] after all that excitement, but we played really great. It's exciting because we really could have beaten them. JoJo [Hale] had a phenomenal game in goal and each player on our team did her part."
Hale and Appell played for the Lyons Township club team under coach Chad Castro, who chose the OPRF players to be on the Junior Olympic team. They began training at the conclusion of the high school season, and defeated the Northern Illinois Polo Club 16-3 in the qualifying tournament to secure a berth at the Junior Olympics. It was an invaluable learning experience in the pool for Hale and Appell.
"In the Midwest, you find more players doing backhands and lob shots. In California they play more straight shots and upper corner shots," Hale said. "Everybody shoots differently and the teams out there shoot a little bit faster. Adjusting to that style of play was challenging at first, but as the games went on I adapted to it."
While water polo is Hale's primary passion, she enjoys other interests outside of the pool including shopping. Experiencing Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills was a high point part of the California trip. Back in Oak Park, Hale simply likes hanging out with her friends when she's not playing water polo.
"Rodeo Drive had nice stores," Hale said with a laugh. "It was stuff that I couldn't buy, but it was still nice. I like to spend time with my friends [in the offseason] because I'm so focused on water polo during the season."
Appell also enjoys hanging out with friends, but it's hard to keep the high-scoring hole set out of the water for long as she loves pursuing her favorite pastime.
"Ask anyone that knows me well and they will tell you water polo is my thing," she said. "I eat, sleep, and breathe it. A big part of polo is having speed so I spend a lot of time swimming with Y2K [Oak Park's year-round swim team]."
The Huskies produced a stellar 23-7 record last season, good enough for second place in the stacked West Suburban (Silver) Conference behind Lyons Township. OPRF lost to York in the first round of sectional play in the state playoffs.
"Our team is really excited about the 2014 season," Appell said. "We built up last year and most of our players are back, so we're definitely ready to make some waves. We want a Top 10 finish this upcoming season."
Hale and Appell carry lofty personal goals for next season as well. Their continued growth and development as players is instrumental within the Huskies' game plan of posting another successful campaign.
"My biggest goals [for 2014] are to make the all-state team and to sign somewhere to play water polo in college," Appell said. "I was definitely bummed that I didn't make the all-state team in 2013, but I've used that as sort of a driving force to keep improving. As for college, I'm narrowing down my list and I'm very excited about the opportunity to play at the next level."
Hale's short-term focus is strictly revolves around the net in hopes of helping the Huskies.
"I just want to be the best goalie that I can be," she said. "I try to grow as a player during the offseason so I can help my team as much as possible. I want to take it one game at a time. Hopefully all the hard work will pay off."
The OPRF girls water polo program is on a serious roll. For the ultimate litmus test of their progress, however, all the Huskies have to do is look down the street and compare their program with Fenwick High School's unparalleled water polo tradition.
Hale and Appell embrace the intense rivalry with Fenwick and the palpable excitement associated with Friars vs. Huskies. The Huskies believe they can compete with the Friars every time the neighborhood rivals tussle in the pool.
"[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."
Appell added: "Our rivalry with Fenwick will always exist. The current Fenwick [girls water polo] team has played together for a long time with the same coach so they have an advantage in that regard. The rivalry is unique because we all pretty much know each other."