ANDREW JANSEN / JOURNAL Max Wahl, Ladue, in the Rams 9-6 loss to SLUH in the state championship game. Sam Erlinger, SLUH.

Paul Baudendistel downplays the dominance. He keeps his remarks humble. He keeps his players hungry. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. But the numbers do the talking. And what they say is that the St. Louis University High water polo team rules the pool with an iron fist. The Junior Billikens have won 15, count ’em, 15 state titles. They own five of the last six championships and are the reigning kings this spring too. “I don’t feel we’re at another level,” Baudendistel says. “It’s a good program and I am proud of that.”

This year has opened like so many before it for SLUH. The Junior Bills are 7-0 and, just last week, brought home the York Tournament title from Chicago. While in the Windy City, the Junior Billikens knocked off Lyon and Loyola, the No. 2 and 4 ranked teams in Illinois, respectively, by a goal each. Win or lose, it’s just great for the players to be out of town and bonding together. “Even if we were at a tournament and we were losing a bunch of games that weren’t competitive or we were at a tournament and were winning games that weren’t that competitive it would still be a great opportunity,” Baudendistel says. “It helps communication. It helps (the players) to know strengths and weaknesses in and out of the pool.”

This year’s team is senior–heavy but returns only a handful of players who saw major pool time last spring. Among those who were heavily involved are team captains Sam Erlinger, Sean Sullivan and Justin Ramacciotti. A 2-meter, Erlinger scored 81 goals and handed out 79 assists last season. Sullivan won 18 games in goal for SLUH while splitting time. He made 156 saves.

Also expected to be major contributors are top defender Pieter Derdeyn and 2-meter Michael Savio. Baudendistel gushes over Derdeyn’s work over the summer and improvements as a defender. Derdeyn will draw the opposing team’s top offensive player, and it’s a pretty good bet he’s going to make their day at the pool a nightmare. “He was our third defender last year. He’s really stepped into his role,” Baudendistel says. “He’s a real key for us. He can shut someone down.”

Derdeyn went with his club team to California in the offseason to compete against some of the best teams in the nation and learned a lot. “He saw 2-meters out there that are way better than anyone he’ll see here. No offense to anyone,” Baudendistel says.

SLUH always manages to have talent in the pool but talent ebbs and flows. Skilled athletes aren’t the only thing that takes a team to the heights SLUH has reached over the years. The Junior Billikens are the definition of a program. They develop their younger athletes on the junior varsity who, over time, are groomed for the varsity level and all the challenges that come with it. John Penilla coaches the JV team so the players get the development they need. The older players are also instrumental in indoctrinating the youngsters into the way things are done. “It’s easier to get buy in from the younger players when it’s the upper classmen telling them this is the way we do things,” Baudendistel says. “It’s fun to watch those guys develop.” It’s even more fun to watch them win.