With a combined 30 state championships (20 boys, 10 girls), the Fenwick High School water polo program has established a tradition of excellence.

After surviving the uncertain nature of this season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, both teams are looking forward to the start of the state tournament this week. 

Moreover, there’s an added incentive for Fenwick to do well: It’s hosting the state finals from May 26-29. It’s the first time that’s happened in school history.

“As a Fenwick alum and water polo fan, I love our pool,” said Fenwick boys’ coach Kyle Perry. “It’s going to be a different feel because you’re not going to have the fans on top of you. But our pool is one of the best in Illinois, and we’re really honored.”

But there’s no guarantee the Friars will be competing for championships at home. Both teams are in difficult sectionals and neither has posted up the kind of regular season records typical of state title contenders.

The Fenwick boys finished 17-11 in the regular season, losing the Metro Catholic Aquatic Conference championship game on May 15 to St. Rita 10-6. 

Despite the loss, Perry is pleased with the development of the Friars this year, considering there were many newcomers at the start.

“From where we were two months ago to where we are now, there’s been incredible improvement,” Perry said. “The boys have done a nice job of rising to the challenge, and I’m very optimistic heading into the playoffs.”

Fenwick’s top players this season have been seniors Pete Buinauskas (92 goals, 33 assists, 57 steals), Liam McCarthy (15 goals, 11 assists, 39 steals), Wil Gurski (71 goals, 41 assists) and goalie Brian Moore (195 saves). 

“Brian is playing phenomenal,” Perry said. “He got a shutout against St. Viator [on May 14]; it’s not easy to get one in water polo. I think Brian is one of the top goalies in the state.”

In order to advance in the state tournament, Perry believes the Friars will need to protect the ball under pressure and elevate their in-game awareness

“We feel we’re ready to make a push and hopefully play our best water polo this week,” Perry said. “If we just play our way, I think we’ll be in every game the rest of the season.”

The Friars are seeded second in the York Sectional and will host the winner of the play-in game between Taft and Von Steuben on May 20. Should Fenwick advance, either crosstown rival Oak Park and River Forest or St. Patrick awaits in the semifinals, with the survivor likely facing the host Dukes for the sectional title May 22.

“You want to be challenged, and when you get a chance to play top teams at the end of the season, what else can you ask for?” Perry said.

Girls building off conference title

The Fenwick girls had a record of 10-12 in the regular season, a rarity for the program. But the Friars enter the postseason with momentum after defeating St. Ignatius 9-4 on May 15 at Loyola Academy for the Metro Catholic Aquatic Conference championship.

“I don’t think they thought it was going to happen a couple of weeks ago,” said head coach Liz Timmons. “We’ve been playing good the last few games, and they’ve learned how to play together.”

With only one player with varsity experience on this year’s roster, it was going to take some time for the Friars to jell.

“When I think about it, it’s crazy for me to see how far they’ve come,” Timmons said. “The fact that they’re doing as well as they are is incredible.”

Demi Ovalle leads Fenwick this season with 33 goals, 15 assists, and 27 steals. Other notable performances for the Friars have been turned in by Annie McCarthy (12 goals, 12 assists, 37 steals), C.C. Trejo (13 goals, 12 assists, and 18 steals) and goalie Julie Soto (94 saves, 13 steals).

Timmons believes the Friars can have success in the state tournament as long as they play their game and not focus as much on their opponents. 

“We can’t worry about the other team and what they’re doing,” Timmons said. “We need to do the things that make us successful.”

Fenwick is seeded third in the York Sectional and hosts Maine South in a quarterfinal on May 19. If the Friars advance, York — this year’s West Suburban Silver Conference champion — would be the probable opponent in the semifinal two days later. 

It’s a difficult road, but Timmons says the tough schedule has prepared the Friars well and also provided perspective.

“We’ve been playing a lot of top-level competition, and in the beginning we weren’t ready to take that on,” she said. “But now, I think we are more ready and excited to play [top teams]. Also, when we’ve had our low points, we have reminded them that we’re here doing what we want to do and having fun.”

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