Boys water polo: Neuqua Valley wins 1st sectional crown
Our time has finally come.
That seemed to be the common thread within the Neuqua Valley boys water polo program after the Wildcats earned their first berth to the state finals. In order to reach this achievement, the Wildcats had to slip past their old nemesis and three-time state champion Naperville Central, and not before the Redhawks put up a late fight before falling 12-11.
With the slim win in their own pool, which was technically the final of the Metea Valley sectional, the 16-1 Wildcats made history and will now prep for a state quarterfinal matchup with New Trier on Wednesday.
"It feels great. We worked four years for this," said Ryan Cercello, who tallied a match-high five goals on Saturday. "We've worked so hard and we knew this would be the year."
The two programs split the regular-season matches and tied for the DuPage Valley Conference crown. In the sectional final, Neuqua Valley led 4-3 after one quarter and 8-5 at the half. But Naperville Central, which won the 2019 state title before the pandemic wiped out the 2020 campaign, quickly closed to within 8-7 early in the third after a pair of goals from Nathan Leuken.
But the Wildcats consistently came up with timely goals from there, leading 10-8 after three quarters and upping the margin to 12-9 following a score from Jimmy Senese with 3:23 left in the match. Central tried to rally late as Owen Codo scored once in traffic to make it 12-10 and again with 28 seconds to play.
"Neuqua was the better team today. We had a handful mistakes that hurt us," Redhawks coach Bill Salentine said. "We tried to fight back and we ran out of time. What was it that Lombardi would say? We didn't lose, we ran out of time."
Senese finished with three goals and is looking ahead to a final season of high school water polo at state.
"The last time both of us played was in this pool, in the sectional final and they beat us," Senese said. "Coming into this year we wanted Central and today we're here, same pool against Central and all of our alumni are here. It's so amazing. All the guys worked so hard this past year. We watched film together all the time and we knew this could be the year."
Neuqua Valley coach Chad Ganden is now excited to have to juggle schedules this week with the state tournament and his daughter's bar mitzvah.
"This is our first time and the first time for the district," Ganden said, noting that District 204 had not previously qualified a boys water polo team for state. "This whole year they made me believe. It's the first time we ever won the DVC, the first time we ever won a sectional and the first team off to state. It's exciting. This is going to be a lot for me this week with my daughter's bar mitzvah, but I'm so proud of these boys."