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Look Out Florida (and St. Louis), Here Come the Friars!

March 26, 2018

More than 50 Fenwick student-athletes are donning sun glasses and packing sun screen, headed southeast (and SW) in what has become a warm-weather rite of spring for our baseball and water polo programs.

By Mark Vruno

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A panoramic view of Disney's ESPN Wide World of Sports, a 220-acre complex near Orlando -- and the temporary home of Fenwick Friars baseball for five days.

Winter baseball in Chicago can be a tall, cold order. “Weather-wise, you never know what you’re going to get,” says longtime Fenwick Baseball Coach Dave Hogan, but it’s usually not good and sometimes involves snow flurries -- or worse. “This year we have five games scheduled this month,” Hogan added on March 13th, as blizzard-like white stuff pelted down before the 11th-period bell. “We’re not going outside today,” he sighed.

Hogan and the team are looking forward to getting out of town at month’s end, donning their Oakleys and heading to a warmer clime in sunny Florida. Their destination, for the seventh consecutive year: Disney World in Orlando and the nearby ESPN Wide World of Sports. ESPN’s complex features seven fields, including Champion Stadium where the Atlanta Braves play their spring ball. The MLB guys will be leaving right before the Friars arrive, “but the minor-leaguers will be down there,” notes the Fenwick coach. Base camp for the skipper and his Friars is the Caribbean Beach Resort, which caters to baseball teams.

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The Florida experience has evolved to what amounts to the Friars’ preseason. “We’ll play six to eight games, including two JV games, down there in the sunshine,” Hogan reports. “It really is a great environment. The competition is tremendous. We’ve played teams from Nebraska and all over the country, but mostly east of the Mississippi [River], including Connecticut, New York and Wisconsin. I just hope we don’t draw anybody from Alabama this year because they’ll already have had 15 to 20 games in.”

On Easter Monday, April 2nd, the coaching staff and 27 players (and about 14 sets of parents, along with some of the boys’ siblings) will take a red-eye flight early in the morning. Then, that night, the Friars take the big field at Champion Stadium. Their opponent is the Hornets of Passaic Valley Regional High, Little Falls, New Jersey, which is a suburb located about 20 miles northwest of New York City.

Members of the Fenwick Community in the Orlando area for the break are invited to see the game as part of an Alumni & Friends Gathering at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex (700 South Victory Way, Kissimmee). A casual reception in the mezzanine will take place from 6 to 8:30 p.m., followed by the first pitch. If you are interested in attending, please RSVP to Jen Iarrabino by March 29th at jiarrobino@fenwickfriars.com or 708.386.0127, ext. 311.

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No Mickey Mouse operation

“Ten years ago this could not have happened,” Hogan explains, “because the IHSA used to have a 300-mile rule.” Illinois teams were prohibited from playing opponents beyond a 300-mile radius. After that policy changed, Hogan happened to be summer-vacationing in Marco Island, FL, and “met a guy who was VP of Operations for ESPN. We became friends, and the rest is history. That’s how this all started.”

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Coach Hogan became an 800-game winner in 2017. (Chicago Tribune photo.)

For the coaches and the players, the trip is primarily about fostering team unity and camaraderie. “The Disney spring-break trip was a good week to play some baseball games in warm weather,” says Gino Cavalieri ’14, the former hard-throwing Fenwick quarterback and third baseman who now is a D3 college senior playing for the Illinois Wesleyan University baseball team. “Besides baseball, it was a good team-bonding experience as we had free time to explore Disney,” Cavalieri said from Auburndale, FL, halfway between Orlando and Tampa, where the Western Springs native was traveling with his IWU teammates.

Casey O’Laughlin ’17, the cannon-arm center-fielder playing as a freshman at Northwestern, agrees. “For me, the Florida trip was always about team chemistry,” says O’Laughlin, a Glen Ellyn native batting .368 as a DH (designated hitter) for the Wildcats. “It was where guys invested in each other’s success regardless of their individual roles. The selflessness of our teams for the years I was at Fenwick is what made us so hard to beat. It was always a 26 vs. 9 game … [meaning] our guys in the dugout were engaged, too. Our whole team was invested in every win and, for us, that usually started with the Florida trip.” 

Those alumni responses put bat on ball as far as Varsity Assistant Coach and fellow alumnus Kyle Kmiecik ’00 is concerned. “Our role as coaches is to help our guys grow together as one single unit and team. This is what makes our Disney trip so special,” contends Kmiecik, whose father, Don, also is a Fenwick varsity assistant coach. “We have a group of 27 individuals who embark on a trip together for five nights to the ‘happiest place on earth!’ It is amazing to see the team grow and come together as a family throughout the trip. We leave as individuals and come back as a family/team. This trip is not only great because of the competition we face, but more importantly because of what the trip does for our team bonding.”

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Pool Time in Lauderdale

When it comes to the team-bonding aspect of extended road trips, longtime Fenwick Girls’ Water Polo (GWP) leader Jack Wagner whole-heartedly sings a similar tune. “It’s extremely beneficial to us,” he says of his team’s seven-day (March 28-April 4) trek to Fort Lauderdale/Miami/Coral Gables. “The girls spend time together not at school. It’s a great team-building experience.”

The coach sees the road trip’s benefits as threefold:

  1. “We get pool time, which we don’t always have here [at Fenwick] with four polo teams ‘fighting’ for same water.”
  2. “It’s a vacation for the kids, which is nice. There’s tons to do in the Fort Lauderdale area.”
  3. “We get to play against the best team in the State of Florida.”

Ransom Everglades is one of top private schools in the Miami area. Just how good are the Raiders? They’ve won seven state GWP titles in Florida over the past eight seasons, earning their last championship in 2016 -- the same year the Friars were state champs in Illinois.

“We only play one game in Florida this year, and it should be a good one,” Wagner stresses. “But this year is more of a training trip for us,” he adds. “We’re not playing in a tournament or a bunch of games.”

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The Fenwick Girls' Water Polo Team will train at the sprawling Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Complex, which is located only a quarter-mile from their hotel.

The Friars will train twice daily at the Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Complex (the former site of the International Swimming Hall of Fame & Museum), which is about a quarter-mile from their waterfront hotel, the Bahai Mar. “We walk to the facility,” Wagner says, “and make it part of our conditioning. One practice every day will either be in the ocean or running on the beach, too.

“We’ve been doing this about every year since 2009,” he adds. It started in 2008 with St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale and has grown and evolved from there, according to Wagner, who should surpass 600 career victories in 2019 – a remarkable feat! This year, a boat cruise is on the itinerary.

Per-diem meal costs for lunch and dinner in Florida run about $45 per player. (Fundraising covers breakfast.) The Friars’ 2018 GWP varsity roster consists of four seniors, five juniors and four sophomores. Most of the senior families travel with the team. On Easter Sunday, there’s a team mass and brunch ($25 per person). “Those players who are there with their family get to spend the day with them,” Wagner explains. “The rest of them get to spend the day with me,” he laughs.

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The Bahai-Mar Hotel in Miami is a short walk to the beach. Coach Wagner incorporates ocean water and sand into the team's daily training regimen.

Alumna Kelsey Sullivan ’17 made the trip two years ago. “One of my best memories as a Friar was traveling to Ft. Lauderdale junior year,” says Sullivan, who now is swimming and studying at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. “It was an amazing experience to play new teams at some amazing outdoor aquatic facilities,” she continues. “Besides the fact that I got 2nd-degree sunburn, being able to hang out by the beach with 15 teammates and enjoy spring break is something I’ll never forget.”

Wagner adds, “The Florida trip is one of my favorite things that we do. It really is a great trip for the girls. When we come back, there’s a comfort level that we generally don’t have otherwise.”

Boys’ Water Polo Heads Back to ‘the Lou’

This will be the Boys’ Water Polo Team’s eighth spring going to the De Smet Invite (April 13 & 14th) in St. Louis, MO. “De Smet is a Catholic, Jesuit high school just west of St. Louis,” says Varsity Head Coach and alumnus Kyle Perry ’01, whose 2018 squad remains undefeated (6-0) in the Metro Catholic Aquatic Conference. “They host games at the St. Peters Rec-Plex, which is one of the nicest facilities in the Midwest.”

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Coach Kyle Perry calls Missouri's St. Peters Rec-Plex "one of the nicest facilities in the Midwest." His 12-3 Friars are set to play the top four teams in St. Louis as well as Stake Jesuit, a polo powerhouse out of Houston.

Typically, most of the Top 10 teams in Missouri are in attendance, explains Coach Perry, whose late father, Dave, is a Friars’ polo coaching legend. “There are also a few out-of-state teams, like us, that have participated,” he notes. Teams from Tennessee, Illinois, Florida and Texas have all been in the tournament in past years. “While our Dan Lynch tournament, which we hosted on March 16 & 17th, is probably the best high school water polo tournament in Illinois, the De Smet Invite certainly is up there for one of the best tournaments in the Midwest,” Perry adds.

“The De Smet family is very welcoming,” Perry continues, “and we are always happy to attend this event,” which the Friars won in 2011, ’12, ’14 and ’15. “We finished 2nd in 2013, losing to Missouri's perennial number one team, St. Louis University High School, by one goal,” he recalls. In 2016 Fenwick took 4th place, losing to SLUH in the semi-finals and state runner-up Lindbergh in the 3rd-place game. “We took 2nd last year, falling to Stevenson High School,” Perry reports.

“We are looking forward to heading back,” Perry adds. “This year's schedule does not have us playing Stevenson but we will face the top four teams in St. Louis as well as Stake Jesuit, a strong team from [Houston] Texas.”

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