Fenwick water polo rolls into state finals

Friars have the talent, drive to add to program's record number of state titles

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Melvin Tate

Contributing Reporter

Claiming a combined 30 state championships, collectively, the boys and girls water polo teams are the crown jewels of Fenwick athletics, not to mention one of the greatest programs in the history of Illinois High School sports.

The Friars hope to add to their record water polo state titles count at the IHSA state finals this weekend, hosted by Stevenson.

Here's our preview of the upcoming matches.

Fenwick girls

Coach Jack Wagner, who celebrated his 600th win this season, hopes to bring home the program's 11th state title.

Thriving against a challenging schedule, the Friars (27-3) are ready for all comers at state.

"All of us are very excited for this weekend," senior Harper Daniels said. "We know what we have to do and we're ready to get it done. This weekend will be hard, but I know it's nothing we can't handle."

Daniels played a key role on last year's team which lost to Stevenson 12-7 in the title game.

"I definitely think that last year has made us more determined to succeed this season," she said. "We have a pretty fresh team this year with nine new players, but every one of us is excited to finish what we started last year."

Daniels (53 goals, 39 assists) is a notable contributor on a powerful offense that will need to be on point in order to win another state championship. Junior Kassy Rodriguez leads the team in scoring with 80 goals and 25 assists. Senior Paulina Correa (77 goals, 36 assists), junior Xonanae Medina (30 goals, 30 assists) and junior Alyssa Sayatovic (21 goals 42 assists) have also been outstanding playmakers in the pool.

According to Daniels, teamwork is of paramount importance for the Fenwick.

"I think the two greatest keys to success this weekend will be responsibility and accountability," she said. "As long as we each do what we know we have to and hold each other accountable, everything else will sort itself out."

Fenwick will have a difficult road at state. The Friars face Mother McAuley in a quarterfinal match on Thursday, May 16 at 5:45 p.m. Fenwick split a pair of matches against the Mighty Macs earlier this season. The Friars lost to McAuley 14-5 on March 18 at the Naperville North Invitational, but prevailed 9-7 for the Metro Catholic Aquatics Conference championship on May 4.

If Fenwick wins its opener, there's a strong likelihood defending state champion Stevenson will be the semifinal opponent on Saturday, May 18 at 9 a.m. Coached by Fenwick alum Jeff Winer, the unbeaten Patriots enter the state finals (and home pool) with a 33-0 record. Stevenson defeated the Friars 15-10 at Naperville North on March 19.

If the Friars do get a rematch against Stevenson, they'll have to find a way to slow down senior co-captain Lauren Maloney, who leads the Patriots with a mind-boggling 126 goals and 66 assists.

The third-place match is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. and the title match is at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 18.

Fenwick boys

Entering the state quarterfinals with a 30-3 record, the Friars enjoyed another stellar regular season. Long viewed as the gold standard in Illinois boys water polo, Fenwick believes another state championship is attainable this spring.

Coach Kyle Perry feels a rigorous schedule coupled with good health has the Friars well-positioned for a 21st championship.

"We have everyone healthy and ready to go which is different than last year," he said.  "Practices have been very focused and the guys are ready to see what they can do on Friday night. We're very much looking at this one game at a time so all our efforts at this point are on our quarterfinal game vs. Conant. The team feels confident, but we know that there's still a lot of water polo to be played."

A primary reason for optimism is the play of Fenwick's senior class, led by Navy-bound Payton Comstock and Nate Fisher. Seniors Comstock, Fisher, Alex Figus, Dan Lynch, Ramses Flores and Manny Ruiz all start for Fenwick.

"As the season comes to an end, our mindset has been the same as it has been all season. Anyone can beat us, we can beat anyone, and we must prepare for every game like it is the state final," Comtock said. "Last year we were more focused on beating LT in the semifinals and I think that hurt us in the final, so we have really been focusing on taking everything one game at a time. Right now our main focus is winning Friday against Conant. After that, we will prepare for the semis and so forth."

Comstock leads the team in scoring with 93 goals and 42 assists. Fisher (67 goals, 54 assists), Figus (40 goals, 29 assists), Lynch (38 goals, 26 assists), and Flores (25 goals, 37 assists) have also been highly productive. Ruiz, the starting goalkeeper, has posted solid numbers with 144 saves and a goals-against average of 5.77.

"These guys have been working for this weekend for their entire four years at Fenwick," Perry said. "When they arrived as freshmen, our water polo team had its worst season statistically in school history. They set out to change that and led us to a fourth-place finish in 2017 and second-place finish last year. 

"There was a lot of talk four years ago that our water polo team would never be as successful as we had been in the past," Perry added. "These guys have taken on that challenge during their time at Fenwick to remind the water polo community in Illinois that Fenwick still is pretty good."

In addition to the seniors, sophomore Wil Gurski (34 goals, 23 assists) and junior Dan Bajda (36 goals, 24 assists) have assumed key roles.

Team depth also bodes well for the Friars against the state's top contenders this weekend. Perry wisely knows the Friars will need to bring their 'A' game if they hope to atone for last year's 13-5 loss to Naperville Central in the title game.

"The biggest thing for us is keeping our composure. When you have had the success that our program has had, you make more enemies than friends," said Perry, in his ninth season as the head coach. "Teams are always trying to get in our heads or change the way we want to play the game. This year's team works well because they don't panic and they are able to stay focused on the task at hand. Instead of reacting, we've worked all season to just keep the focus on our team doing the things that make our team a success. No matter what, we want to play our game."

Fenwick faces Conant Friday, May 17 in the quarterfinals. The match starts at 8:15 p.m.

If the Friars advance, they'll face either defending champion Naperville Central or Stevenson in the semifinals on Saturday, May 18 at 12:45 p.m., with the third-place match (5 p.m.) and the championship match (8 p.m.) occurring later in the day.

"The keys to winning this year is making sure we play our game and don't take unnecessary kickouts," Comstock said. "As long as we do these two things no team can beat us."

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