Boys water polo: Neuqua Valley takes 3rd, wins 1st state trophy
Neuqua Valley senior Ryan Cercello made sure to use his height to an advantage -- after Saturday's state third-place game.
After the Wildcats pulled out a 14-13 victory over Lincoln-Way East, the 6-foot-6 Cercello walked up to his teammate, senior Jacob Duncan, and grabbed the third-place trophy. Cercello hoisted the state trophy high over his head and proceeded to walk along the narrow bulkhead with a gleaming smile.
In the pool, Cercello made a bigger impact, scoring his team's final 2 goals to seal the emotional win. The Wildcats outscored the Griffins 4-3 in the final quarter, including enduring a lengthy delay, to notch their first state trophy.
"This makes me tear up," Cercello said, holding back his emotions while clutching the trophy. "We've been working the past four years for this moment. We wanted nothing more. I really wanted that trophy. We all worked for it. I didn't want to be selfish, but I wanted it so badly."
The Wildcats, in their first state appearance, defeated New Trier 12-8 in the quarterfinals before losing 17-10 to Stevenson in Friday's semifinals. Cercello, one of 7 seniors, said the entire team relished making program history. Cercello paced the Wildcats with 4 goals and 2 assists, while senior Jacob Duncan finished with a team-best 5 goals. Jimmy Senese added 3 goals for the Wildcats (18-2). Cercello scored his last 2 goals in the final 53 seconds. Jake Fisher led the Griffins (21-6) with 6 goals.
"We were trying to run down the clock, but they were trying to score and pulled their goalie out, and he was out of the cage, so all we had to do was stop them and we would have an easy goal," Cercello said. "We've had great teams come and go through here, so just to be able to have some hardware to show how hard we've worked is insane. We're all just best friends, and all worked well together because we bonded together."
Neuqua Valley coach Chad Ganden repeatedly told his team to "wake up" after the conclusion of the third quarter. Duncan, who scored the opening goal of the final quarter to give the Wildcats an 11-10 lead, said the team heard his message.
"All the seniors realized it was our last seven minutes," Duncan said. "A lot of us have been working since seven years old. We weren't going to let third place slip away. We knew we could win this game. Everyone finally realized this was it. We started off very slow, but everyone started playing. I'm so happy for the team and seniors who worked really hard for this."
Ganden said the Wildcats took a major step beating powerhouse Naperville Central in the playoffs. He said the victory over Lincoln-way East was another big step for his program.
"We tried to make this a family thing and learn from our mistakes and get better," he said. "These guys really bought into that. We had a lot of adversity throughout this entire tournament, but they battled the whole way. The seniors have left the team better. The six seniors, plus our senior manager, were all special."