Playing with the lead quickly became familiar for the 2018 Hill School boys’ water polo team. Entering the Eastern Prep Championship game with an overall record of 21 wins and just one defeat, Hill often took the lead early in games throughout the season, and the team was used to dictating the game's tempo.
Early in the third quarter of the championship game against Haverford, Hill found itself in unfamiliar territory. The Fords held a 9-5 lead and appeared to be pulling away from top-seed Hill. Facing its largest deficit of the season, the question lingered of whether or not Hill could stem Haverford’s momentum and regain control.
The answer was a resounding yes. Hill gradually chipped away at Haverford’s lead, pulling to within a goal entering the fourth quarter. John Nelligan ’19 and Alfonso Mestre ’19 scored for Hill in the final period and Hill kept Haverford off the scoreboard, clinching the come-from-behind, 12-11 victory in front of a standing-room-only crowd at Baldwin School’s aquatics center.
The win clinched the first Eastern Prep “A” Division Championship for Hill since 2002 and is the program’s fifth Eastern Prep Championship; Hill also won championships in 1996, 1999, 2000, and 2002.
“This was a complete team. We had size, speed, experience, and a potent inside-outside game,” said head coach Doug Jones. “Max Moore, Michael Schiavone, and Patrick Dunn have been playing on the varsity team since their third form year. Max and Patrick started a few games as third formers, which is nearly unheard of. Alfonso came the next year and entered the starting lineup midway through the season despite never having played the sport prior. That 2016 team lost the Eastern Championship game in the closing seconds, but that core four would be the foundation for this season’s success.”
After one quarter, the scoreboard read Hill 4 – Haverford 3, but the scorekeeper’s book read John Nelligan 4 – David Gobora 3, as the duo traded goals throughout the opening frame. At the start of the second quarter, Haverford began double teaming Nelligan and also neutralized Tiernan Brunner ’19, a strong presence in front of goal for Hill. Meanwhile, Hill struggled to contain Haverford’s dynamic passing game that quickly moved the ball from the perimeter to the slot. The teams traded goals early in the second quarter before Haverford scored five unanswered goals. Thirty-four seconds into the third quarter, the Fords held a 9-5 lead against a visibly frustrated Hill team.
One of the more frustrated Hill players was goalkeeper Yeob Kim ’19. An experienced, three-sport athlete, Kim took a deep breath following Haverford’s ninth tally and regained the poise that made him a steady, reliable presence in the deep-end cage this season.
“The team helped me regain my focus,” Kim said. “Once we began chipping away at their lead, it took the weight off my shoulders.”
Momentum gradually began to swing in Hill’s favor after Haverford took a four-goal lead. Brunner and Dunn scored on consecutive possessions to cut Hill’s deficit to two, and on the defensive end of the pool the team committed to playing tighter defense in front of goal, the area Haverford had exploited up until that point.
With 1:40 remaining in the third quarter, Haverford converted a penalty shot to take an 11-8 lead. It would be their final goal of the afternoon. Nelligan and Mestre both scored in the final 90 seconds of the frame, and Hill entered the fourth quarter down a goal but carrying the edge in momentum. Nelligan scored a highlight reel, backhand goal with five minutes remaining to tie the score, and with three minutes left, a wide-open Mestre took a cross-pool pass from Moore and buried a shot into the vacant net. Hill led for the first time since early in the second quarter, 12-11.
“We needed to make adjustments after Haverford focused on shutting down John, and the answer came in taking perimeter shots after making an extra pass to open a shooting lane,” Jones explained.
There was still plenty of work to be done. Kim was at his best in goal when it mattered most, denying a Haverford player from point-blank range on a man advantage in the final minute. An outlet pass found Schiavone open in Haverford’s half of the pool, and he was able to hold on to the ball until the shot clock expired, giving the Fords one final possession. As Schiavone was the only player up, Hill was in perfect defensive positioning to deny Haverford a quick-strike opportunity. The Fords were forced to the perimeter, and Kim saved a desperate, bad-angle shot in the final seconds to preserve the victory.
“I was ready for one last shot, and just kept my eyes and mind locked on the ball,” Kim said. “As goalie, I knew it was my responsibility to come up with a big save in that situation. Sunday might have been my last time playing water polo, so I wanted to pour everything I had into that moment.”
With the win, Hill finishes the season with an overall record of 22 wins and one loss. The 22 wins ties a program record for wins in a season, matching the 2002 and 2007 teams, both of which played at least five more games than the 2018 team.
Brunner, Mestre, and Nelligan were named to the Eastern Prep All-Tournament First Team, and Nelligan was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.