New Trier’s boys water polo team had placed fourth, third, even second in the IHSA state finals.
Not in eight prior trips to the final tournament had the Trevians won the big trophy.
Until May 21 at Stevenson, when New Trier defeated Whitney Young 13-11, behind 5 goals by Noah Wendt and 4 from Red Ricciardi, to capture the state title.
“It’s a validator, to be honest with you,” said New Trier coach David Rafferty-Flatter, whose record improved to 179-51-2 in eight years leading the squad.
“All the work, all the planning, all of the sacrifices by the guys,” said the man known as “Raff.”
“Our seniors have really been leading the charge the last six years, with club (water polo), getting the guys into the weight room as early as freshman year. Seeing all of that kind of culminate in perfect fashion. I think that’s the key word there — it just validates what we’ve done.”
It was exceptionally rewarding considering all-sectional goaltender Eli Sternweiler needed to come out of the pool with a serious bout of leg cramps with three minutes left in the third quarter of a game tight throughout. Without a warmup, junior Luke Schermerhorn jumped in to close out the victory.
“It wouldn’t be a state final game if it was easy,” Rafferty-Flatter said.
Just to reach the title match New Trier (33-2) may have needed to surmount its greatest challenge of the season physically, mentally and on the scoreboard.
In the semifinals, the Trevians faced Lyons Township, which had dealt New Trier its only two defeats of the season in tournaments at Stevenson and at York, 1-goal margins each time.
The third time was the charm for New Trier. The University of the Pacific-bound Sternweiler made an astounding 20 saves and Wendt, with Ricciardi a fellow all-sectional pick, scored 5 goals in a 9-6 Trevians win.
After that, the boys went home and studied film on their title-game opponent, while the coaching staff contemplated their strategy for their second match of the day.
“Death by 1,000 paper cuts,” as Rafferty-Flatter put it, believing his bench was deeper and New Trier eventually would outlast the Dolphins in the pool.
“We were wanting to sort of wear them out a little bit, knowing it would come down to a late third-quarter, fourth-quarter surge. Just throwing bodies at them. I think that was the deciding factor, actually,” the coach said.
New Trier on Friday handily dispatched Palatine 21-11 in the quarterfinals behind Diarmaid (pronounced “Germit”) Halloran’s 9 goals. After missing three weeks of the regular season due to illness, then slowly worked back into the lineup, Halloran exploited a hole in Palatine’s scouting report and utilized the Trevians’ offensive philosophy of presenting multiple offensive weapons.
“What they were doing defensively is dropping off him and challenging him to shoot,” Rafferty-Flatter said. “Fortunately for us, he’s one of our best shooters out there.”
Wendt and Ricciardi were neck and neck in season scoring honors for the Trevians; Wendt scored 100 goals with 44 assists, Ricciardi 104 goals with 39 assists, plus a team high 67 steals.
Thomas Dean, who scored 3 goals in the Palatine game, scored 52 total goals. Charlie Steinback, who Rafferty-Flatter said may give UC-Santa Barbara water polo a try, tied Wendt for the team lead in assists with 44. Wendt will move to the swimming program at Denison University in Ohio.
Other seniors such as Tim Asinski, J.D. Lundberg, Ian Perry and Teddy Woodman will move on as well. But they’ll always have this validation as, essentially, a family.
“They really are good friends. They spend their time together in the water and out of the water,” Rafferty-Flatter said.
“It’s always kind of a joke — who has more fun, the coaches or the kids? But this made this season so much easier and fun because these kids slept, ate and probably did nothing but talk about water polo 24/7, and it made it such a pleasure.”