IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Two-meter defenders in water polo deserve two varsity letters after each season.
One for water polo.
Another for that sport with singlets and mats.
“We pretty much wrestle in the water on every possession,” Loyola Academy senior 2-meter defender Tony Spallone says of one of his position’s job requirements. “We’re not about stats; all we care about is doing what we can to shut down a team’s dominant player.”
The 6-foot, 160-pound Rambler did that often last year for a sectional finalist and continues to do so for a squad with a 17-3 record this spring. Yes, Spallone’s frame is a fairly undersized one for the demands of the position, but his background as an outside linebacker in football — from fourth grade through freshman year — has come in quite handy in pools.
The resident of Sauganash Woods, a Chicago neighborhood, has also become more of a threat on offense in 2018.
“Tony gives his all on ‘D’, usually against an incredibly tough player, and then he swims at full speed to help us out at the other end of the pool,” Ramblers boys water polo coach Daniel Hengelmann says of his captain. “He never comes out of the pool. I’m asking him to do the impossible for us, and you know what? He’s always up to the challenge.”
A JV swimmer more than a year ago, Spallone entered his senior varsity swimming season this past winter with what he thought was a realistic expectation: compete, as a sprinter, at a sectional meet.
Spallone competed, as a sprinter, at the state meet. The former football, basketball, baseball and lacrosse player anchored the Ramblers’ 200-yard freestyle relay team to a 14th-place showing (1:26.56). The unit had entered the state meet with a seed time of 1:27.34 — 30th among qualifiers. LA senior Tommy Barr, another swimmer/water poloist, swam the relay’s second leg.
“Tony’s consistency in water polo impresses me,” Barr, the team’s hole set, says. “He never has an off game. Never. And he’s one of the best at drawing ejections. Last year his primary focus was playing lock-down defense for us; he did such a great job in that aspect, especially against Niles West’s top offensive player [in a sectional semifinal, an 8-5 LA victory].
“This year,” Barr adds, “there’s more balance to his game, with his effectiveness all over the pool.”
Spallone had hoped to play in basketball games in his freshman year; he enjoyed the sport, and his father, Bill, had served as his grade-school hoops coach. But he got cut in tryouts. That led him to the pool for the 2014-15 swimming and diving season. LA swimmers with polo experience then convinced Spallone to give polo a try in the spring.
“That first day of water polo I had no idea what I was doing,” Spallone recalls. “I’m in the water, learning how to egg-beater kick.”
Spallone stuck with it. LA assistant water polo coach Tommy Nimrod eventually envisioned Spallone as a productive, disruptive 2-meter defender, and the coach shared that vision with the rookie. Spallone gained confidence.
Football ended up in Spallone’s rear-view mirror for good.
“He’s now the cornerstone and the quarterback of our defense, as well as one of our best and fastest swimmers,” says Hengelmann, whose Ramblers are ranked fifth in the state by illpolo.com and have lost only to fourth-ranked Fenwick and third-ranked Lyons Township (twice). “I love how he committed to swimming and water polo last summer and fall, how he developed the offensive side of his game. It’s not easy to start our transition from his spot on defense and then finish it with a goal at the other end.”
It’s not easy to play 2-meter defender, period.
“He takes it … takes a lot of punishment,” says Noah Zahn, a sophomore field player on varsity. “That comes with the position. But Tony doesn’t flinch. It’s a grabby sport, a tough sport, and you have to have the kind of physicality Tony has to be successful at that position.”
Hengelmann considered Spallone’s junior season a highly successful one. The all-state teams were announced in May. Spallone hadn’t been named to any of them.
The omission stunned Hengelmann.
“Only three times in my coaching career have I been upset about one of my players not making all-state,” Hengelmann says. “That was one of them. Tony deserved the recognition, no question. He did so much for our team last year. It broke my heart that he didn’t make it.”
Spallone — Indiana University-bound, with plans to major in business and play club water polo — has been playing polo at an all-state level since Day One this spring.
“So focused, always game-ready, and Tony is a fierce athlete in the pool,” Hengelmann says. “But out of the pool he’s really friendly, the nicest guy in the world with a million-dollar smile.”
Notable: Loyola Academy’s boys water polo team finished runner-up at the Lyons Township Tournament April 6-7. Each of the six teams in the field was ranked in the top 20 in Illinois by illpolo.com. No. 5 LA defeated No. 15 Whitney Young 13-5 and No. 19 Oak Park-River Forest 10-2 before bowing 6-5 in triple overtime to No. 3 Lyons Township. Ramblers sophomore goalie Jake Carr and his defense allowed only 13 goals — the fewest in the field. Junior Kenny Sajnaj paced LA’s offense with nine goals, followed by senior John Merucci (6) and senior Charlie Freedman (5). … Loyola Academy lost 13-11 to Fenwick in its season opener and then won its next 12 games. … LA’s Ramblers beat Evanston’s visiting Wildkits 8-4 on April 10.