Wildkits punch ticket to IHSA state water polo finals

Members of the Evanston boys water polo team celebrate a 4-2 victory over Loyola Academy in the championship game of the Glenbrook South Sectional tournament. (Photo by Chris Livatino)

Evanston’s boys water polo team waited a long time to make a postseason splash.

But back-to-back victories over New Trier and Loyola Academy --- two programs that have been responsible for knocking the Wildkits out of the Illinois High School Association state tournament on an annual basis --- made it worth the wait.

The Wildkits continued their postseason run following a scintillating comeback win over New Trier on Friday night by toppling No. 1 seed Loyola 4-2 in the championship game of the Glenbrook South Sectional tournament on Saturday morning.

Coach Kevin Auger’s team improved to 28-3 and punched a ticket to the IHSA state finals for only the second time in program history. The Wildkits finished third in 2005.

Evanston will meet top-ranked Lyons Township next Thursday at 5:45 p.m. in a state quarterfinal test at the Stevenson High School pool.   Lyons won its own sectional with a 16-5 romp over St. Rita Saturday.

Evanston’s swarming defense and 14 saves by junior goalie Henry Goodman stymied the Ramblers and avenged a regular season loss in the Loyola pool. Ben Coleman, Jacob Finn-Samuels, Grant King and Lucas Verrilli all found the back of the net for the sectional champions.

“It feels amazing! They really played great!”  Auger exclaimed. “We played way better today than we did last night. We played the best defense we’ve played all year --- I know that’s saying a lot --- and we had a lot more opportunities on offense today, even though it’s hard to get opportunities against a great team like Loyola.

“Historically, New Trier or Loyola go to State almost every year and the last time we even got to the championship game was back in 2006. That’s mainly because we could never get past whoever was the No. 2 seed. The road to State always seems to go through those two teams.”

“I’m not sure how I feel  because this is so surreal,” said co-captain Verrilli. “I’m just very happy to be a part of history. I like playing defense.”

Finn-Samuels went his teammate one better.

“I LOVE playing defense,” said the senior standout. “We were scrambling everywhere on defense today and we didn’t slip up, not at all.”

With Goodman in the net, Evanston’s veteran defenders have felt free to double-team or even triple-team their opponents’ leading scorer, knowing that even a wide open shooter will have difficulty finding an opening against the athletic junior. Those double-team tactics worked almost perfectly Saturday, as Goodman yielded just a second quarter goal by Kenny Sajnaj and a score by John Merucci with 4 minutes, 23 seconds left in regulation play.

A steal by Rafael de Gouvea --- the hero of the come-from-behind semifinal win over New Trier --- sealed the verdict with 60 seconds left on the clock.

“It was really a team effort today,” Auger said. “Loyola tried to get an advantage on us in the corners, but our double teams came just when we needed them to come. Goodman did a great job. He didn’t make any mistakes on those corner shots, and he stood up to all of those 90 mile-per-hour shots that they took at him from 10 feet away. He set up one of our goals and he had a few steals, too.

“Loyola hit 5 posts today? One of the drills we do in practice is working Henry to get to the corner, and he knows the parameters of the net because of the hard work he does. He knows what he needs to do to get to that corner. We don’t want him to get to every ball, just the ones that are inside the net (width).”

For Goodman, the victory was payback for the loss to the Ramblers in which he allowed 4 goals in a quarter at the shallow end of the Loyola pool. The fact that the GBS pool is all-deep (at both ends) made a significant difference for the junior goalie.

“I thought about that first game a lot,” he admitted. “They only got 2 goals on us in the deep end in that game and I tried to keep them locked down today. A shallow end goalie is more like a soccer goalie because it’s about good reaction and reflexes when you can jump off the bottom. It’s different when you play in an all-deep pool.”

Evanston advanced to the Elite Eight despite the graduation of the school’s all-time scoring leader, Thomas Fies, in the spring of 2017. So why are the Wildkits better after losing a player who could be the best in school history?

Verrilli, Finn-Samuels and Nate Perkoski have all netted more than 55 goals this spring to pick up the offensive slack created by Fies’ departure, and the improvement on defense for the entire squad has been nothing short of remarkable.

“A bunch of us went to the Stanford University camp and trained there in the summer,” Finn-Samuels said. “We worked so hard in the off-season because we knew we’d have a big chance as a team this year.”

“We also worked together on the North Beach and Eastside Clubs as a team and I think that helped our chemistry get better,” added Goodman. “We’ve really worked as a team year-round.”

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.

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