Top-seeded Palatine seemingly had it all under control, leading 11-7 against Fremd after three quarters in the championship game of the boys water polo sectional hosted by the Pirates.
The Vikings, seeded No. 6, did everything it could to spring another upset with a concerted fourth-quarter surge, but in the end Palatine's experience held sway in a 12-10 decision.
The Pirates earned a second trip to state under coach Joe Grzybek, but the most recent one was back in 2006. In the intervening years, there've been consistently strong teams and conference championships -- but also a series of heartbreaking losses in sectional semifinals and finals.
"It's nice to have a different outcome, the one we were looking for," said Grzybek. "Everyone has their own battle -- teams tend to get stuck at a certain level. For us, we've been able to make a lot of sectional finals, so that's been our challenge, to get through."
They did it mainly by not flinching as Fremd roared back in the fourth quarter.
The Vikings got a quick goal from Zach Starkey (team-high 4 goals) to start the last period. After Fremd forced a series of turnovers, Luke Stark scored on a lob with 3:54 left to make it a 1-goal game at 11-10.
"I know I was getting a little bit overexcited," said Palatine senior Wally Kleinfeldt. "But coach Grzybek really prepares us well for all situations. We knew what we had to do."
Such as, for instance, score.
Coming out of the timeout, the Pirates ran a play for senior Omar El Hoffi, and like clockwork, he scored the game's last goal with 2:48 left.
El Hoffi finished with a game-high 5 goals and had 5 assists.
"Having experienced kids is a really important aspect of our sport," Grzybek said. "Those guys that have been there before, they're more likely to have success in tough situations. We decided what we were going to run, told our guys where to put the ball for Omar. They got it done, and he scored."
Fremd can take some solace in the fact that it will return many players from this year's team, which lost 17-9 to Palatine early this season but saved its best play of the season for the sectional.
In coach Brian Newby's estimation, the experience differential between the teams ended up making the difference against Palatine.
Kleinfeldt and another senior, Kristiyan Kalev, both finished with 3 goals, and Charlie Davis stopped 13 Fremd shot. Stark finished with 3 goals for the Vikings (14-16).
"Their seniors were big," said Newby. "We gave them our best game, and I'm extremely proud of my guys. It's tough, because, you know, we're within 2 points. But the fact that we came out and played a whole lot better than a six seed means a lot to us."
Grzybek, Newby and Conant's Tim Daniel all coach together in the same club organization, so many of the players in Saturday's game knew each other well. With that familiarity comes certain level of mutual admiration.
"The first time we played them this season, it was 17-9," Kleinfeldt said. "I have the utmost respect for coach Newby, and their team. They're so much better than early in the season."
But it's Palatine moving on. The Pirates (23-9) will meet Loyola in the last of the day's state quarterfinals at 8:15 p.m. Thursday at Stevenson High School.
"Our theme this year has been 'Focus,' " Grzybek said. "When we're playing the way I know we can, with everybody's eyes wide open, we can be dangerous."