May 18, 2018
Jack Wagner hopes to wrap up his 23rd year coaching Fenwick girls with his 11th state title this weekend – but don’t call him coach.
By Mark Vruno
“Pool rats” in the know realize what “GWP” means. It is code for Girls’ Water Polo. When people talk about that sport in Illinois, the conversation leads to Fenwick’s dominance. And the face of the Friars’ program for two decades has been Jack Wagner, the head varsity coach.
The crown jewels of Wagner’s reign at Fenwick are nine IHSA state championships, including a three-peat in 2004-06, and an ISA state championship in 1999 (his first). During the ’19 season next year, Wagner’s win-loss record will flirt with 600 career victories, but he remains even more proud of the L column: “We had under 100 losses up until 2017,” he reports. Still, he relishes the opportunity to play for a 10th IHSA title, Wagner admits. His record in championship games presently stands at 9-1.
But the Friars need to win two more games before they can think about that. “Our teams have always been ready to play in those finals games,” Wagner notes. Hopefully, that will be the case tomorrow if they can survive and advance to the 8 p.m. title matchup on May 19th. Tonight, if they get past Lane Tech (Wagner’s alma mater), they will play either Conant or Loyola Academy, the latter of which Fenwick has beaten in the regular season. Mother McAuley and Stevenson will slug it out on the other side of the Elite Eight bracket for a spot in the semi-final round. Lincoln-Way East and Naperville North also are in the mix.
Wagner casts an imposing shadow. A big man with an intimidating presence, he may come across as gruff when people first meet him. Yet players, past and present, who know and respect their coach insist that he is more of a cuddly Teddy bear than a ferocious Grizzly bear.
Strategically focused and seriously competitive most of the time, what endears Wagner to his well-conditioned athletes is his ability to joke around, which helps to keep them loose.
“I treat girls the same way that I treat boys,” Wagner explains. The parents of his female players have come to understand and accept that tough love and holding people accountable are large parts of the coach’s long-term success. He must be doing something right, other than winning, that is. “I’ve been invited to more weddings of past players than I can count,” Wagner shares. He also is Godfather to several children of past players who have started families of their own. Alumnae Erin Foley '04 is an assistant coach and Science Teacher Amy Christophell '06 has coached with him in the past.
This year’s relatively young Fenwick team is 22-6 heading into tonight’s Elite Eight matchup with Lane. The 2018 Friars’ roster lists only five seniors (three of whom are starters) along with four juniors and four sophomores. Despite missing their starting goalie, junior Samantha Rodriguez (who is expected to return to action on Saturday), the Friars are heavily favored to advance to the quarter-finals on Saturday at Stevenson High School, site of the IHSA Water Polo State Tournament this weekend. Last weekend at the York Sectional, the Friars dominated, handily beating Riverside-Brookfield (17-5) and home-team York (19-5).
Often intense, "Jack" may bark instructions poolside, but his players insist he’s more Teddy than Grizzly bear.
Opposing coaches have named senior leaders Molly McGuire and Millie Sheean to last week’s All-Sectional 1st Team, while junior Paulina Correa made the 2nd Team. All three players also made the Metro Catholic Aquatics Conference (MCAC) All-Conference 1st Team. (Juniors Kassy and Sam Rodriguez made the MCAC’s 2nd team, along with sophomore Xonhane Medina.) The Friars, however, are not overly concerned with individual recognition in their team sport. Their collective eyes remain fixed on the prize they hope to claim as their own late Saturday evening in Lincolnshire.
Wagner learned the game at Portage Park Pool on Chicago’s Northwest Side at Irving Park Rd. and Central Ave. 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 Tech 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 10 years later. 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 says that he once had a bad coach for whom he lost respect. “The guy treated his players poorly,” he recalls, “and because of that experience, I don’t like to be called ‘coach.’” That’s why Wagner’s players are on a first-name basis with Jack.
Jack's pack of Friars, 2018 Sectional Champions, are hoping for a bigger and better trophy at the IHSA State Tournament tomorrow in Lincolnshire.
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 has been back in Oak Park for the past 19 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 also is concluding his second year as a Fenwick parent: His son, Johnny, is a soon-to-be junior and is playing water polo, of course, for the Friars.