Water polo: Cancellation of season that had begun a bitter pill to swallow
Everybody out of the pool.
That was the edict to water polo teams from the Illinois High School Association on March 12, when all spring sports were suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Water polo season for both boys and girls had begun three days earlier.
"I think we played the most games of anybody in the state," said Conant girls coach Justin Bickus, whose Cougars were 2-1. "We were lucky."
Some teams continue to work out on dry land while preparing mentally via teleconference and film study. They keep fingers crossed the IHSA will grant spring athletes one last chance to engage in June competition.
"I'm still hoping," Hersey boys coach Marc Popovici said. "Not state level but something."
The cancellation of the spring season was hard to swallow for those involved in the burgeoning sport, which came under the IHSA umbrella in 2002. It was particularly tough news for two of the state's top programs.
The Stevenson girls team was seeking a fourth straight state title and fifth in six seasons.
"This group of seniors has only known winning a state championship at the end of the year," said coach Jeff Wimer, leader of the program since the 1997-98 season. "They really wanted to prove themselves."
Wimer's team has continued to train six days a week unabated, led by the seniors. Players take turns hosting "dry land" workouts three afternoons a week via Zoom meetings. Two other days are reserved for technique training. Saturdays include a game film breakdown and book review.
Tele-meetings sometimes feature special guests. On Monday, the Patriots were joined by graduate Claire Haas, now a sophomore at Southern California. The Kildeer native helped Stevenson win three state titles. Continued program cohesiveness and mentorship are the overriding goals.
"We might not be in the pool together but we are together," Wimer said. "We are still a team."
The Naperville Central boys water polo team had 10 returning seniors, the largest graduating class in the 19-year career of Bill Salentine, the program's only coach. The campaign to win a third straight state title and fourth in five years was nixed by the pandemic.
"I was heartbroken that it might've been the last time some of these guys ever played the sport they loved after they dedicated a lot of time, energy and effort into it," Salentine said.
How the water polo community moves forward this summer is unclear. The summer scene is club based. Wimer founded the Northern Illinois Polo Club for Stevenson players in 1997. It was the first suburban club team outside of Chicago, he said. Today, over 20 such suburban high school-based water polo clubs exist.
The Northern Illinois Polo Club offers U-12 and U-14 boys and girls teams and two high school teams for each gender. Each is coached by former Stevenson players because Wimer is limited to 25 summer contact days by rule.
Practices are held at the high school pool, as are select tournaments. However, this week Wimer was notified by Stevenson officials all summer camps and programs are canceled through Aug. 1.
"We can't get in the water," he said. "Our summer coaches will have to continue what we've been doing."
Vulture Water Polo Club, the summer haven for many Naperville Central players, is taking a wait-and-see approach. "If we can get back in the pool, we'll get back in the pool," Salentine said. "Right now everything is on hold."
The St. Charles Polo Club is based out of the John B. Norris Recreational Center. It is the summer home for players from St. Charles North and St. Charles East. That summer program is on hold too.
"We're really at a standstill until we get clearance from the governor and the park district," said St. Charles North girls coach Chris Cloy. "Obviously, we're going to have to adjust to whatever regulations get processed. Once we know, the club is ready to start programming."