Title Defense: New Trier defends its state championship thanks to defensive pivot
It’s difficult to score without the ball.
That was New Trier water polo’s mindset when facing top-ranked Stevenson and star Olin Kusevskis in the state championship game Saturday, May 20, at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire.
The Trevians denied Kusevskis the ball nearly all night, resulting in zero shot attempts for the 2-meter specialist and a 10-6 victory for the Trevians. The win gave New Trier (32-4) its second straight state championship and avenged three regular-season losses to the potent Patriots (34-2).
“Defensively, we made quite a few adjustments to be honest with you, trying to take away, in my opinion, the best player in the state in Olin,” New Trier coach David Rafferty-Flatter said. “He is a dominant 2-meter center and we wanted to force them to go a different way offensively. And that really was the big reason for the change. We hadn’t played that way.”
The Trevians were coming off a dominant 2022 season in which they won 33 games and earned the first state championship in program history.
With plenty of talent returning to the roster in 2023, New Trier looked to be equally as dominant — outside of Stevenson, which was ranked No. 1 in the state by Illpolo.com for much of the season.
The Patriots bested the Trevs 10-5 on March 18, 10-6 on March 25 and 12-8 on April 29. So during the stretch run, New Trier worked on a new defensive strategy, thinking that the Patriots could stand in their way of a repeat state championship, said senior Noah Wendt.
“We worked on it for like a month,” he said. “We were thinking that it was going to be Stevenson the whole team. … We were pretty confident it would be Stevenson.”
After winning a sectional title, New Trier downed Whitney Young (17-6) and Lyons (9-6) to advance to the state-title game, and sure enough, Stevenson had made it there too.
As the game started, New Trier deployed its new defensive strategy, and at the same time, got it done on the other side of the pool to leap in front 3-0 early in the second quarter.
“That was huge,” Rafferty-Flatter said of the early lead. “Stevenson to their credit comes out ready to play from the first whistle. The first couple times we played them they were up 5-1 or 4-0. … We wanted to come out and weather that storm.
“We knew if we were down one or tied after the first quarter, we had a good chance. I don’t think we expected a 3-0 lead that’s for sure.”
Stevenson did adjust and outscored New Trier 4-3 in the second period to close to within a goal (5-4) at halftime.
But the second half belonged to the Trevians. Goalie Luke Schermerhorn (9 saves) saved a penalty shot to keep Stevenson from tying it up, and New Trier’s Alex Bailey (2 goals) and Caden Adrianopoli scored the next two goals as the Trevs took a 7-4 lead.
Adrianopoli and Wendt (game-high 4 goals) each scored early in the fourth to give New Trier a commanding 9-5 advantage.
“When we went up (9-4) with that goal, I came back and looked at my teammates next to me and it was like: we got this,” Wendt said. “When there were a couple minutes left, we kind of knew it.”
Each team scored one more goal prior to the final buzzer, and when it did the celebration was on for the Trevians and their faithful fans who packed into Stevenson’s natatorium.
Rafferty-Flatter gave all the credit to his players, who he said had to adjust to a new style of play this season while also overcoming the pressure of being the defending champs.
“We did not have that high-end speed we had last year … but size-wise, this was the biggest team we’ve had,” the coach said. “In the half-court game, that helped. And any time you are defending champs, the bullseye on your back is extremely big. The guys had to adjust. Every time a goal is scored against you, the cheers are louder. … They came together and played good water polo.”
New Trier’s seniors — like Wendt, Bailey, Thomas Dean (1 goal, 1 assist), Schermerhorn and Charlie Plater — are going out on top and leaving the team in good shape thanks to their mentorship of the program’s up and comers, Rafferty-Flatter said.
Wendt passed the credit right back to Rafftery-Flatter and his staff, who he said made all the right moves up to and including in the championship game.
“The beginning of the season we were figuring out stuff, where we were going,” Wendt said. “I think our coaching staff knew we had to change it up (when playing Stevenson). Every year we overcome it and we’ve done it back-to-back years now. I want to thank the coaching staff and shout them out.”
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Joe Coughlin is a co-founder and the editor in chief of The Record. He leads investigative reporting and reports on anything else needed. Joe has been recognized for his investigative reporting and sports reporting, feature writing and photojournalism. Follow Joe on Twitter @joec2319