Water polo: Heinlein's last-second OT goal sends Fremd to state; Hersey girls advance

Fremd's boys and girls water polo teams split a doubleheader Saturday at the Conant sectional championships in Hoffman Estates.

The Vikings' girls squad fell 11-4 to a balanced and powerful Hersey crew in the opener. Fremd's boys then won a thriller in the nightcap, edging top-seeded Palatine 10-9 in overtime to secure a state quarterfinal berth next weekend at Stevenson.

Vikings junior Jaden Heinlein chucked the clutch "pitch" of the day when he scored the winning goal with 15 seconds left in the second three-minute OT session.

"We were patient there at the end, and we got a great pass (from senior Kurt Pennell)," said Fremd boys coach Tim Daniel, whose team enjoyed leads of 5-3 and 6-4 in regulation but trailed 9-7 after the first three-minute OT period.

The victory avenged a sectional final loss to Palatine last spring. The Vikings (20-10-3) will face Lyons' Lions Friday at 5:45 p.m., with a Final Fourth berth on the line in Lincolnshire.

"I said before the start that this game would be a coin flip," said Palatine coach Joe Grzybek, whose Pirates (22-12) poured in 3 fourth-quarter goals in a 1-minute, 48-second span to take a 7-6 lead with 1:40 left in regulation.

Fremd's Pennell knotted it at 7-7 a little more than a minute later.

"I'd imagine that was a fun game to watch as a spectator," Grzybek added. "Both teams can leave today feeling proud."

Fremd junior goalkeeper Ansh Parikh played exceptionally well. When he wasn't making a save, he was either smothering a Palatine foray or recording a steal.

"(Parikh) is so good at anticipating the location of shots and then getting there to stop them," said Fremd senior Aurelien Laffont, who scored the first goal of the championship game at 5:56 of the first quarter.

Fremd overcame 7 goals from Pirates senior Cayden Hilgers and a strong effort from Palatine sophomore Will Mason (1 goal and big-time plays on defense, including a block in the final minute of regulation).

"Cayden is a special player," Grzybek said, adding Hilgers intends to pursue a career as a firefighter. "He has such smooth movements, along with creativity. I have no idea how he executes some of the stuff he does in the pool."

Pennell paced Fremd's offense with 4 goals, followed by Heinlein (3) and sophomore Eric Zhan (2). Goals by Zhan and Pennell preceded Heinlein's clincher, after tallies by Hilgers and sophomore Brodie Piecuch had staked Palatine to that 9-7 cushion heading into the final 3 minutes.

Fremd junior Tyler Franke deflected a pass to essentially seal the win in the waning seconds.

"I wasn't sure we'd have enough left after falling behind 9-7," Daniel said. "But our guys battled back, fought hard and played scrappy water polo."

A scoreboard glitch delayed the start of the morning's girls sectional final by 22 minutes. But it didn't throw Hersey's Huskies (24-8) off in the least, as they advanced to the state finals for the third consecutive season with an 11-4 triumph.

Hersey freshman Melissa Loch notched all 3 of her goals in the first quarter, as coach Megan Brownley's club raced to 4-0 lead over Fremd (16-11) and stretched it to 6-0 at 2:16 of the second frame.

Hersey was just as dominant at the other end of the pool. Loch, senior Annika Lindberg and juniors Avery Born and Clare Corley played stellar defense in front of senior goalkeeper Anastasia Smirnova (9 saves).

"Clare Corley is out-of-control good on defense," said Brownley, a 2003 Buffalo Grove graduate who guided Hersey to a program-best fourth-place finish at state in 2021 and lost 22 seniors to graduation last spring. "Clare doesn't allow anyone to get by her, she contests shots, and she calls switches."

Junior Victoria Wrona also scored 3 goals for Hersey, which led 6-1 at halftime and took a 10-3 lead on a Corley goal with 1:42 left in the final quarter. Corley and Lindberg each finished with 2 goals.

Huskies junior Leah Blumenfeld capped the scoring in the final minute.

"We don't focus on winning games; we focus on winning each quarter," Lindberg said.

"We're very balanced," added Corley. "We're good on offense. We're good on defense. We kept our energy up, and I thought our ballhandling helped us a lot today."

Hersey will face Lane in a state quarterfinal Thursday at 4:30 p.m. at Stevenson.

Senior Jacklyn Bickler scored 3 of Fremd's 4 goals in the sectional final. She and classmate Maya McMinn struck for a pair of goals in a 1 minute, 8-second span to cut Hersey's advantage to 8-3 in the fourth quarter.

"Hersey's offense is as strong, if not stronger, than its defense is," said first-year Fremd coach Theresa Knowles, a 2015 Wheeling graduate who, as a Unified District club water polo player, was coached by Brownley. "You can't slough off them. You can't press them. It's hard to figure out what to do against them, because they do a little bit of everything on offense.

"Our girls fight every single second, no matter what the score is. It speaks to their character. I'm proud we made it to this game."

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