Boys water polo: Reinforcements help Naperville Central return to state
The last thing Illinois boys water polo teams wanted to see was defending state champion Naperville Central adding two key players to an already formidable lineup late in this season.
Yet here are the Redhawks heading back to the state quarterfinals next week at Stevenson High School with reinforcements in tow.
The Redhawks held off Neuqua Valley's fourth-quarter rally at Saturday's Neuqua Valley sectional final, winning 10-8.
"It feels good," said Redhawks junior Cam Dougherty. "We're back where we belong."
Dougherty played in just his 13th game of the season after returning from a broken ankle. He estimates he's still at just 80 percent of full fitness, but it didn't keep him from scoring 4 goals against Neuqua. He has 29 goals already this season.
"It feels really good to be back," Dougherty said. "Being out six and a half weeks and then being back and able to contribute like that is a really good feeling."
Bender Russo added 3 goals for the Redhawks (31-1), Brad Sanford scored twice and Luke Klein-Collins added another.
"We have a really good team," Dougherty said. "Anyone of us can go off. We don't think that many teams have four players that can guard me, Bender, Brad and Luke. So just any given game, whoever has the matchup, we look to go to them."
Sanford played just his fifth game after returning from an extended illness.
Neuqua Valley tied the game at 4 to start the third quarter, but the Redhawks scored the next four goals to lead 8-4 after three quarters. The lead looked insurmountable when Sanford added another goal to open the fourth.
"We were able to draw a lot 6-on-5s," Dougherty said. "With Brad back in the pool, because he was out for an extended period of time too, with how good he is with the left hand we know when we draw a 6-on-5 we have a very good chance of scoring off of it. And we were able to just go to work because he draws so much attention and creates a lot of room for the rest of us."
Neuqua Valley didn't give in. The Wildcats (24-8) cut the margin to 10-8 with a couple of minutes to play on Matt Townsend's fourth goal of the game.
"We just played as a team and we found a little burst of energy. We were able to get some good fastbreaks there, capitalize on some mistakes that they made," Neuqua coach Chad Ganden said. "... We're a very fast team and we were able to get our speed going at that time."
The Redhawks remained unflustered, however, and held off the the Wildcats.
"They're tough," Ganden said. "They're tough because they've got so much confidence and everything going in there way. They're a very good team, and I think that's what makes them tough, that they don't crack under pressure a lot. They're very disciplined and they don't let things get into their heads too much."
Naperville Central has won state two of the past three seasons.
"We expect this," Dougherty said. "Next week is where the real work starts."