AURORA – While the prospects looked pretty poor for Lockport’s boys water polo team after it fell behind Neuqua Valley, 10-6, early in the fourth quarter of Friday’s Metea Valley Sectional semifinals, veteran coach Joe Lewandowski refused to give up hope.
With a strong group of seniors leading one of his best-ever teams at the school, the veteran coach knew that his Porters could still come back, and that’s exactly what they did,
Lockport stunned Neuqua by outscoring it, 6-1, during the final 6:09 to rally for a 12-11 victory in the clash of two of Illinois’ top-10 teams in the state’s toughest sectional.
The win advanced seventh-ranked Lockport to its first sectional final since 2013, where it met up with second-ranked Naperville Central for a trip to next weekend’s IHSA finals in Lincolnshire. But Lockport’s hopes for its second state appearance and first since 2012 were dashed when it fell to the Redhawks, 13-4, in Saturday’s championship game.
Central advanced to the quarterfinals against third-ranked Stevenson at 8:15 p.m. Thursday.
But their dramatic win over the Wildcats will go down as one of the program’s most exciting. Lewandowski said that it was not only the Porters’ best comeback of the season, but also their biggest ever in any comparable setting in the postseason.
Jake Sweis scored four goals, Mateusz Zalesko added three tallies, and goalie Connor Hecker made 12 saves to help inspire the comeback for the Porters (26-5).
“These guys have been gamers since they came in their freshman year,” Lewandowski said. “They want to constantly play at a high level and consistently want to get challenged. So in the fourth quarter, we knew that we had a chance, but we just had to play a little bit better and have no slop or turnovers and also just find the back of the net.
“We were working a different offense, and then we switched it back up, and then went to a special play on our last timeout and scored on a back-door cut. This is the toughest sectional in the state and to go up against Naperville schools that are consistently producing great polo players. My guys are only four-year players, so for them to compete here, I couldn’t be prouder of them. We wanted to meet up with Naperville Central from Day 1.”
Neuqua scored three times withing a span of only 49 seconds early in the second half to grab a 7-4 lead. Then it got a goal from Ben Monson with only five seconds left in the third and another 25 seconds into the fourth from Matt Townsend to seemingly take control by establishing its biggest lead of the night at four.
But Zalesko connected twice within 1:22 and Simon Harmata also scored in that span to make it 10-9. And after Hecker stopped a breakaway a short time later, Sweis scored three goals within a span of 1:38, with Tyler Thompson assisting and the first and last, to take only their second lead of the contest with only 52 seconds remaining.
“As soon as the fourth quarter started, we knew that we had to come out really strong,” Sweis said. “Those first couple of goals started the momentum, and it kept going. We ended up the regular season with the best record in Lockport history, so we’re ecstatic. No one gives up, and we play well together. We all know exactly what we’re going to do and have great team chemistry.”
The score was tied at 2 after one quarter, and the Wildcats scored the final two goals of the second half to take a 4-3 lead at the break. After Giovanni Onesto (two goals) scored 38 seconds into the second half to tie it, Neuqua moved in front with its three quick goals.
“We focused on what we’ve done in practice and after coach drew up our game plan for the last quarter, we executed it perfectly,” Zalesko said. “We relied on defense since that’s what wins games. We had to keep our composure and then outplayed them in the last four minutes. Playing for this program has definitely been a blessing. This was one of our best seasons, and we got put in the hardest sectional, so we were going to fight the whole way.”
Hecker made several key stops during the final quarter as the Wildcats were only able to connect once in the final 6:30 of play.
“We’d been like this before but never in a game with this intensity,” Hecker said. “But we knew what we had to do and had some good shots. Neuqua’s goalie was one of the best in the sectional, and I give him props for all of the shots that he blocked. My defense has helped me out all year. Our team never quit and always played through the fourth quarter.”