August 4, 2020
After more than two and a half decades of coaching female Friars in the pool – and 10 state titles – Wagner puts his team’s ‘final shot’ in the (top) shelf.
Jack Wagner, long-time Fenwick High School varsity girls’ water polo head coach, has announced his retirement. Wagner coached the Friars for a total of 26 seasons, achieving 600 wins in 2019. The crown jewels of his reign at Fenwick are nine IHSA state championships, including a three-peat in 2004-06, and an ISA state championship in 1999 (his first). His record in championship games stands at 9-1. Despite all the victories, he remains even more proud of the loss column: “We had under 100 losses up until 2017,” he reported two years ago.
Wagner’s athletes always were in shape, thanks to his grueling workout regimens. And the coach took pride in teaching them water-polo strategy and the finer points of the sport. “We thank Coach Jack Wagner for his tireless efforts in leading one of the most successful programs in the history of Illinois high-school athletics,” praised Fenwick Athletic Director Scott Thies ’99. “Jack is an all-time great and a master at building teams, setting high expectations and getting everyone to bring their best every day.
“Our Girls' Water Polo teams under Coach Wagner always seemed to peak at the right time,” Mr. Thies continued. “I would also like to thank Jack’s wife, Mary, and his son, Jack, for their support of Fenwick and Girls’ Water Polo during Jack’s coaching tenure. Coach Wagner will be missed but will always be a huge part of the Fenwick community, and we look forward to continuing a tradition of excellence in Girls' Water Polo at Fenwick.” Thies added that the school will conduct an open search for Wagner’s replacement.
Wagner commented: “It was a great experience being involved with so many great players and families. I was blessed to work with the most amazing young women who made me the coach I became. Their dedication and desire for excellence made coaching them an experience I will treasure. Being a part of the Fenwick family is an honor that I have never taken lightly,” he continued. “It was the best job I ever had!”
“I treated the girls the same way that I treated boys,” Wagner explained. The parents of his female players came to understand and accept that tough love and holding people accountable are large parts of the coach’s long-term success. He must have done something right, other than winning, that is. “I’ve been invited to more weddings of past players than I can count,” Wagner shared. He also is Godfather to several children of past players who have started families of their own. Alumnae Erin Foley '04 was a recent assistant coach, and Fenwick Science Teacher Amy Christophell '06 had coached with him in the past.”
Wagner learned the game at Portage Park Pool on Chicago’s Northwest Side, where he started playing water polo when he was 12 years old. Four years later he led all scorers at a National Sports Festival tournament, then became an All-American by his senior at Lane Technical High School in Chicago.
His coaching career began at Portage Park when he was only 18. In 1988 he started the Chicago Polar Bears, a club team that ultimately became Windy City Water Polo. Wagner served as the USA Water Polo Midwest Zone Coach for boys from 1990-98. Additionally, he was the USA Water Polo assistant coach for the Men’s Junior National program from 1992-98; the ’97 team won the Pan-American Gold Medal.
Wagner once played for a bad coach for whom he lost respect. “The guy treated his players poorly,” he recalled, “and because of that experience, I don’t like to be called ‘coach.’” That’s why Wagner’s players were on a first-name basis with Jack.
His first stint coaching the Fenwick girls’ team spanned from 1993-98. Wagner left to become the first ever assistant coach for Indiana University’s Women’s Division I water polo team, then returned to Fenwick in 2000. Jack was back in Oak Park for the past 20 seasons.
Wagner likes water. (Imagine that!) When he’s not around the polo pool, he enjoys fishing in his spare time. “I love being out on the lake,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what the weather is.”
Wagner recently concluded his fourth year as a Fenwick parent: John, his son, is a member of the Class of 2020 who played water polo, of course, for the Friars.