RICK GRAEFE / JOURNAL Sam Erlinger of SLUH lead the Junior Billikens with 7 goals in their 17-6 victory over Kirkwood Friday night at St. Peters Rec Center to earn a berth in tomorrow night's championship game.

Rick Graefe

Sam Erlinger is on another level. Whether it’s in the pool, the classroom or the lab, the St. Louis University High senior water polo standout excels. He was one of four students in his class to score a perfect 36 on his ACT. “I took it twice. I got a perfect score the second time,” the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Erlinger says. “There was a little moment of disbelief.”

Erlinger’s academic achievements landed him a full ride at Vanderbilt University. His hope is, as of now, to follow a pre-med track with an emphasis on biology or chemistry into medical school. When it’s all said and done, he believes genetic research is where he’ll end up. This school year, he schlepped around a research lab at Washington University observing and assisting any way he could as the doctors worked with the genetic components of malaria. “It was cool,” he says.

Snow days are cool. Free tacos are cool. Finding a dollar you didn’t know you had in your pocket is cool. Assisting in a genetics lab as an 18-year-old? That’s on another level—kind of how Erlinger is in the pool.

The most dynamic scorer on one of the best SLUH water polo teams to ever don a Speedo, Erlinger was otherworldly as a 2-meter. He tallied 114 goals and 52 assists as the Junior Billikens finished 25-2 and lost in sudden-death overtime in the state title game to Parkway West.

It was a brutal way for SLUH to end its season and Erlinger to end his career. As the days have gone past, time has healed some of that pain. But even two weeks later, Erlinger would still catch himself replaying key moments in his head. Whether it was the goal he nearly scored or the play SLUH almost made, he hasn’t been able to shake the sting of that defeat. “It definitely comes up in my mind,” he says. “It’s not the ending we were hoping for.”

What has helped salve the wound was the team’s banquet in the days that followed the title game. The players, as tight-knit a bunch as you’ll find, were able to get together one last time and relive the highs of the season. SLUH took on a schedule that was the toughest it had ever faced and its two losses came by a combined two goals. Coach Paul Baudendistel shared his thoughts on the team and the season. He even shed tears when talking about the players and the effort they gave to the program. Saying goodbye is never easy. The way SLUH was forced to break itself apart made it that much harder. “It’s tough, especially when it ends differently than how we wanted it to end,” Baudendistel says.

It was Baudendistel that saw the promise in Erlinger. During his sophomore season, SLUH was in the midst of a tough stretch and needed to shake some things up. Baudendistel and his staff slotted Erlinger, a fresh fish on varsity, into the all important 2-meter role. It turned out to be a stroke of brilliance. “He’s left handed, for one. Defenses aren’t used to that,” Baudendistel says. “He’s a very strong and smart player. No one is going to out-think him in the pool.”

Erlinger, to his credit, took the opportunity and ran with it. His junior and senior years combined he scored 203 goals and handed out 123 assists, which are staggering numbers considering the depth of talent SLUH trots out.

Erlinger might never play with the same level of talent again. He plans on continuing his water polo career at Vanderbilt, but it will be for the school’s club team. SLUH, of course, will miss him dearly. Every year, Baudendistel says goodbye to a class of kids who have given their heart and soul to the program. Erlinger’s impact, though, is monumental. “Come next February when we start practice, there’s going to be a big hole,” Baudendistel says.