The toughest question Andy Miner ever has to answer is who his star player is.
For the Evanston girls water polo coach, it’s more about team first — and now his players feel the same way.
A year removed from winning just nine games all season, the Wildkit girls claimed their first Central Suburban League tournament championship since 2005 with a decisive 8-3 title game win over Glenbrook North in the Spartans’ home pool Saturday. It’s the first tourney title for the Kits in league competition since they scored a three-peat between 2003 and 2005.
The chemistry experiment has to be declared a success at this point. Now 20-6 overall, ETHS’ turnaround has helped the Kits reach the 20-victory plateau for only the third time in school history.
And there’s more to come, beginning next week, where the Kits are seeded No. 2 behind the host team at the St. Ignatius Sectional.
Saturday, Evanston’s balance was apparent again as the Wildkits tamed GBN for the second time this season. And the fact that for the first time this spring, the conference championship was decided in the regular season, not in the tournament, didn’t detract from Evanston’s overall effort.
Aliya Abdelhak, one of 7 seniors on the ETHS roster, scored 3 goals for the winners. Karissa McBride and Courtney Gregori netted 2 apiece and sophomore Honore Collins also found the back of the net.
“It’s a little disappointing that it’s not the league championship, because for the first time this year we’ve gone to a model where the champion is determined in-season,” Miner said. “So maybe today doesn’t have the same meaning that it used to. It just doesn’t feel the same as it did in years past.
“But we’re playing some of our best polo at the right time of the season, that’s really the important thing. In this tournament you want to build confidence and feel like you can play with anybody coming out of it. That’s how we feel now. We’re focused on next week (sectional), and I think we’re ready.”
“We still wanted to go out and give it our all, and I think we tried our best today,” Abdelhak said. “As a senior, I was really disappointed when we lost to New Trier during the season. That was kind of a wakeup call for us. We knew we needed to get things together and work on some things.
“Last year the focus was just on a few key players. But this year, we’re working together better as a team. All of us are shooters, all of us are key players. We know we need everyone. We’re closer now as a team than we were last year and we’ve just connected better, in and out of the pool.”
Miner’s team concept doesn’t produce 20 shots on goal for any player in particular. But the results are obvious as the Kits take aim on the school single season for wins (24) set by the 2004 squad that placed 3rd in the state tournament.
“I think from last year to this year, we’ve had a change in mentality across the board and it definitely helps to have 7 seniors,” said the ETHS coach. “A lot of them have been on the varsity for 3 years now. Every one of them feels they can take over a game if they have to. We’re a very different team than last year because of the cohesion we have. We’re constantly pushing the idea that every one of them is responsible for us winning — and losing. And I think they got tired of losing last year, too.”
That wasn’t a problem Saturday. Glenbrook North didn’t even score until the third quarter — in a “man up” situation — after the Wildkits had built a 4-0 lead on two goals by McBride and one each by Collins and Abdelhak.
Evanston answered the first Spartan goal at the 4:02 mark of the third period when Gregori converted a pass from McBride, also in a man-up situation. Abdelhak notched another goal on a breakaway for an insurmountable 6-1 lead after three quarters.
Glenbrook North did solve Evanston goalie Olivia Everhart (11 saves) for a pair of goals in the final period, but it was a case of too little, too late against a strong ETHS defense.