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updated: 5/17/2014 6:02 PM

First things first: Palatine makes Elite Eight

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  • Aaron Gabriel/agabriel@dailyherald.comPalatine coach Mitch Tucker holds the sectional plaque as the Pirates celebrate in their own pool following a 9-6 victory over Conant on Saturday.

      Aaron Gabriel/agabriel@dailyherald.comPalatine coach Mitch Tucker holds the sectional plaque as the Pirates celebrate in their own pool following a 9-6 victory over Conant on Saturday.

 
 

Not too long ago, Palatine was having a hard time winning any girls water polo game, much less the ones that come at the end of the season.

Three seasons ago, the Pirates finished with a record of 6-21. Two years ago, that improved to 12-18. Last year, 18-12.

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The winning trend continued this season, and Palatine punctuated it Saturday afternoon in its own pool with the biggest win in the program's history.

A 9-6 victory over Conant, in the sectional championship game.

For the first time, Palatine (27-5) will play in the Elite Eight.

The Pirates meet Mother McAuley in the last of Friday's four state quarterfinal games at Stevenson High School, at 8:15 p.m.

Along for the entire ride these last four seasons has been Rachel Chumbook, Palatine's career leading scorer. She scored a game-high 4 goals against Mid-Suburban West champ Conant.

And Chumbook was around for those lean early years, which made this success especially sweet for her.

"It's because we were really a family this year," she said. "We spent time together, really got to be close. Getting to state? It's a like a dream come true. We all knew we could do it."

It didn't start all that well for Palatine. Conant standout Carmen Rosas drew an ejection on the Cougars' first possession of the game, and shortly after Miranda Fenlon scored on a lob. Rosas scored near the end of the period to put the Mid-Suburban West champs up 4-2.

In spite of having lost twice to Conant in the regular season, Palatine remained confident.

"It's almost like you have to forget about what's happened before," said Pirates junior Caroline Wojtas, who finished with 2 goals. "You have to learn from your mistakes, but once it's game-time, you just have to focus on that."

Conant (26-7) led 5-4 at the half before Palatine outscored the Cougars 2-0 in the third quarter to take a tenuous 6-5 lead.

Chumbook scored after following a teammate's missed shot, but Conant senior Angie Skittone got that one back with 2:30 left.

Then came Palatine goalie Kim Butler's shining moment, as she stopped Rosas on a penalty shot that could have tied the game.

"Kim is absolutely crucial to what we do," said Palatine coach Mitch Tucker. "Having her back there, we feel like it gives us a big advantage."

Caitlin McHugh scored her second goal with 47 seconds left, and Palatine got one final score on penalty shot in the final moments.

Kaitlyn Claffey led her team in scoring in the final game of Conant's best-ever season with 3 goals, and stellar junior goalie Maddy Demaret made 13 saves and had 3 steals.

Tucker said taking a close look at his team's most recent loss to Conant, and reviewing the Mid-Suburban League championship between Conant and Wheeling, played a role in getting the victory.

"We looked at a lot of film, and that really helped," he said. "We were able to say, 'OK, these are the plays we ran that seemed to have success,' and 'Let's try to stay away from this.' I just felt like our girls adjusted and were prepared."

And on deck after the game, posing for photos and shedding a tear or two of joy, they were quite pleased.

There may be other Palatine girls water polo teams to make the state finals in the future, but only this group will be able to say they were first.

"What we kept saying was this was 'Our Game,' " said Wojtas. "It turned out to be true."

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