Entering last year’s state tournament, Naperville Central’s girls water polo team knew it had a great chance of winning a state tournament for the first time since water polo became an IHSA sport in 2002.
With three Division I talents, 135-goal scorer Abbey Kerth (Arizona State) and lockdown goalie Julia Campbell and two-way standout Emily Sejna (both at Michigan), the Redhawks went 33-3, reaching the state title game before falling to defending state champion Fenwick.
Seven seniors graduated off that squad, leaving the Redhawks in a bit of a rebuilding mode, at least to outside observers.
But lo and behold, the Redhawks are back in the state tournament for the eighth time since 2005 after their 10-6 Neuqua Valley Sectional title win over Naperville North Saturday.
The Redhawks face St. Ignatius in the state quarterfinals at Stevenson at 7 p.m. Thursday.
Naperville Central enters the tournament with a 22-11 record.
“We got to the final few weeks of the season and the girls are finally starting to gel,” Central coach Jeff Plackett said. “I think that we have found a solid starting lineup. I think we have a good substitution rotation going right now.”
Back in April, the Redhawks suffered through a tough stretch of games, which prompted Plackett to enlist a practice used by Notre Dame’s football team in 2011 to help refocus his team.
Plackett instilled the Count On Me Campaign to the team, and it helped turn things around.
“We started talking about accountability,” Plackett said. “After a game, we reflect on what we just did and basically pledge to our teammates, here’s what you can count on me to do to make us a better team. The message is that if everybody does their own job, good things happen.”
In the pool, the biggest difference has been balance.
In the past, Plackett said that he would be happy if his top four goal scorers had totals around 90, 60, 40 and 20 to get the job done. This year, there are seven girls on the team with at least 20 goals, meaning that a bench player has gone for more than 20 goals this season.
Senior Madison Nervig, one of the key holdovers from last year, leads the team with 53.
“What we’re seeing is we get a lot more balance this year,” Plackett said. “Things changed mentally for me at the start of the year. We tried to change up what we were doing offensively to more of a movement-based offense just because we didn’t know who would emerge at the center position. Leslie Calabrese’s improvement, especially after spring break, has allowed us to do a lot more stuff than we were able to do at the start of the year.”
Calabrese had a grand total of one goal a year ago as a junior.
Central finds itself in a bracket featuring the top three teams in the state according to illpolo.com. The Redhawks beat St. Ignatius 11-7 last year in the state semifinals.
Two-time defending state champion Fenwick and the state’s top-ranked team, Mother McAuley, face off in the other quarterfinal on the bottom of the bracket.
“People are using terms like buzz saw, but my only concern right now is St. Ignatius,” Plackett said. “Their speed, they are a very good counter attack team. No offense to anybody else, but I think (St. Ignatius senior Becky Insalaco) is the best player in the state. Ignatius does a lot of things well. I appreciate the tradition and how strong they are year in and year out, but we’re not going to roll over and play dead. We’re a pretty good program too.”