RICK GRAEFE / JOURNAL sluh's Michael Savio pushes the ball towards Parkway West's end near the end of the the first 3 minute overtime period Wednesday afternoon at parkway West where the Junior Billikens prevailed in overtime, 10-8.

Rick Graefe

Paul Baudendistel relished the past week. The head coach of the St. Louis University High water polo team, Baudendistel and the Junior Billikens had a week with no games, no worries and no stress. They did not, however, have the week off. Instead, SLUH’s polo players went through an intense week of fitness and conditioning. They treaded water for five minutes with just their legs and intermittently were told to do jumping jacks. There were walls squats, squat jumps and hard lap after hard lap. “It’s our last chance to do hard conditioning and gear up for one last push,” Baudentdistel says.

That last push is the Missouri Water Polo District Tournament. But you can call it state. The Junior Billikens enter the state tournament as the defending champions and top seed. SLUH finished the season 22-1 and was one goal against Chicago powerhouse Fenwick from being unbeaten. Against the schedule SLUH played, that’s no small feat.

The Junior Billikens tussled with the heaviest hitters they could find. Fenwick is the No. 1 team in Chicago. SLUH also went toe-to-toe with the No. 2 and No. 3 teams from the Windy City. They beat Parkway West, the state tournament’s No. 2 seed, twice. They beat De Smet, the No. 3 state seed, three times. And on and on and on. The schedule was purposely brutal to test the Junior Billikens as much as possible in preparation for the playoffs. “If this didn’t (prepare them), I don’t know what else we could do,” Baudendistel says. “It’s the hardest schedule we’ve ever played.”

And SLUH handled it with aplomb. They got contributions from all over the pool. When you do the things the Junior Billikens have done this season, you can’t put it on one person. But we would be remiss if we didn’t highlight Sam Erlinger’s offensive explosion of 96 goals and 40 assists. Justin Ramacciotti, Michael Slaughter and Chris Favier all went for more than 30 goals. Favier, Justin Jellinek, Michael Savio, Slaughter, Pieter Derdeyn and goalie Sean Sullivan all had more than 20 assists.

A tight-knit bunch, Baudendistel says the team took its play to another level with more off-season ‘dry land’ workouts than in years past. Pushing through the grueling training sessions brought the players closer together. “We’ve done more dry land workouts,” Baudendistel says. “That’s something that helped them bond outside the pool.”

The senior class has led the charge. Whether against killer conditioning sessions or a killer opponent, the seniors have brought a great work ethic and leadership. “It all starts with the seniors,” Baudendistel says. “It’s a lunch pail mentality when they come to practice.”

Though SLUH would love nothing more than to defend its state championship, that isn’t the goal. Instead, Baudendistel says, the goal is to be at the peak of their powers and give it everything they’ve got. If they’re fortunate enough to bring home the big prize, then so be it. But this team and this senior class will not be defined by whether or not it wins its final game. “Our goal is to be the best team we can be,” Baudendistel says. “Winning is a byproduct of that.”

And, in the last week, SLUH got some time to sharpen its edges as the playoffs get underway this weekend. The time away from games gave everyone a chance to breathe. “It was kind of a meat grinder season,” Baudendistel says. “It’s a good chance to refocus. It’s the calm before the storm.”