FRANKFORT – The quest by Lincoln-Way East’s boys water polo team to earn its third consecutive trip to the IHSA finals looked to be on the ropes as it trailed Sandburg, 6-3, in the final seconds of the opening half in Saturday’s Lincoln-Way East Sectional title game.
But the Griffins got a big boost when they connected only one second before the break and then carried that momentum into the final half as they proceeded to score five of the next six goals to claim a 9-8 victory that advances them to the quarterfinals at Lincolnshire against Conant, who beat Barrington, 9-3, at Schaumburg. The match will be at 7 p.m. Thursday.
It’s the second year in a row that coach Ryan Lodes has led East to the IHSA finals. The Griffins (20-11) and Conant are both seeking their first trophy for a top-four finish in the sport.
“Give Sandburg credit since their guys were all over us and were stealing the ball and blocking our shots,” Lodes said. “But that was also our strategy. Sandburg did a great job of executing, but my guys executed three perfect games in the sectional. All season, we’ve been working on some simple fundamentals and really showed that in these three games. This is nice since our program’s mentality is that we want Lincoln-Way East to be in the sectional final game every year. It’s phenomenal that we came out winning.”
Despite having a five-meter try blocked by goalie Collin McGovern, the Eagles (24-7) still scored three straight goals in the second period to take a 6-3 lead. But just before halftime, Jared Bruni passed the ball in front of the net, and Ryan Utt (two goals) flicked it in with one second left to give the Griffins a big momentum boost.
“In practice we work on that back door shot, and I took a swing at it, and it worked out pretty well,” Utt said. “We’ve been a second-half team all year and as a team we just come together. Sandburg’s Joe Jenkot is a great offensive player so our main goal was to shut him down, and once we did, it was a good game from there on out. Coach Lodes is great since he pushes us every day, always has confidence in us and trusts everyone on our team to play.”
In the second half, Bruni scored on a pass from Utt and sent a pass to Patrick Rossetto (two goals), who tied it at 6 with 2:44 left in the third. After Richard Sokolowski got his fourth goal nine seconds later to put Sandburg back on top, East got goals from Tyler Orloff (two goals) and Rossetto off assists from Utt to make it 8-7.
While the Eagles struggled to find the net and were denied by McGovern on their best attempts, East took a 9-7 lead with 5:22 remaining when Noah Schor connected. It remained that way until only 32 seconds were left when Joseph Jenkot cut the margin to one goal and in the late going, a final try was wide of the mark.
The Griffins goalie is one of four players that have competed on all three state tournament teams while 10 others also return from last year’s squad.
“Any mistake could have cost us, but everybody kept their heads together,” McGovern said. “That goal before halftime boosted everybody’s confidence like crazy. On that side, I trust everyone in the pool, and especially Ryan. I’ve worked with two different goalies who were amazing, Jake Culver and Shawn Shields and I really wanted to prove myself to both of them. So I finally get my chance, and I couldn’t ask for anything more. I couldn’t be more happy with our team this year.”