SAPPINGTON • Patrick Hudak left the crowd gasping.
A senior center for Cincinnati's St. Xavier High water polo team, Hudak rose from the water and let loose a missile that didn't find its target but caromed off the frame of the goal. The subsequent sound echoed through the natatorium like thunder.
Cincinnati's water polo player of the year and an Iona recruit, Hudak left an impression.
So did his team.
St. Xavier rallied from an early deficit Saturday as it pushed past St. Louis U. High 12-9 to win the Lindbergh Invitational at Lindbergh High.
The two-time defending state champion, SLUH (19-4) had its eight-game win streak broken. The Jr. Billikens pounced on the Bombers and took a 4-1 lead at the end of the first period.
St. Xavier scored six unanswered goals including a pair by Hudak to take a 7-4 edge with with 2 minutes and 9 seconds to play in the third period. SLUH coach Paul Baudendistel burned his full timeout to talk it over.
“They're good,” Baudendistel said with a smile. “I liked the way we responded.”
SLUH got a pair of goals from Luke Smith and Nick Mattingly within the next 40 seconds to cut the lead to 7-6 headed into the fourth period.
Mattingly tied the match at 7-7 when he scored with 5:21 to play.
But St. Xavier could not be stopped.
The Bombers powered home five goals in the next five minutes to seal the victory and go 4-0 at the tournament.
“That's a really good team. They've got some big dudes who know how to play water polo,” Baudendistel said. “I was proud of our guys. That was a great effort and a great game.”
Made all the more impressive because St. Xavier finished its season in October. Water polo is a fall sport in Ohio and the Bombers are among the state's elite. Five years after it restarted its polo program St. Xavier is the two-time defending champion.
Hudak is a huge part of it – literally. A rock solid 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds, Hudak never played before his freshman year. He tried out for the basketball team as a freshman but it didn't go his way.
“He went out for the basketball team and I don't know what I did to get this gift but the basketball coach cut him as a freshman,” St. Xavier coach Mike Roberts said. “He started to play water polo and he fell in love with it.”
Hudak enjoyed the game so much he dedicated himself to it and completely remade his body. He's dropped nearly 50 pounds since his freshman year and replaced it with muscle. A physical force in the middle of the Bombers offense, Hudak gives defenders the blues.
“He's a load but when we got back on him and got Thomas Nordmann on him we had a lot of success,” Baudendistel said. “When we couldn't find him on counters and he ended up on someone else we struggled a bit. He's a terrific player.”
St. Xavier was given the green light by its administration to make the out-of-season trip to Lindbergh. It didn't take much convincing for the school's principal Terry Tyrell who's a St. Louis U High graduate. His brother, Colin, played for Baudendistel, too.
“It was an easy sell to the principal,” Roberts said.
The Bombers go in search of top notch opponents and found what they were looking for. Once St. Xavier wrapped up its ninth consecutive state championship in the winter swimming season, the water polo players focused on this one last tournament together.
“This was kind of a farewell tour for the seniors and to get our juniors some more playing time,” Hudak said. “It's a great tournament, happy to do it.”
SLUH took a rare loss but expects to be better for it. The Jr. Billikens gave a good effort against a great opponent but there is always room for improvement.
“As proud as I am of them I told them they can play better and they know that. I think they saw when we did those things, when we got back to defense early and matched up we had success,” Baudendistel said. “When we didn't come all the way back we struggled. Something as simple as that is a good lesson and you only learn it when you play teams of that caliber.”
LADUE 6, LINDBERGH 1 • The cliché goes that you learn more from a loss than a win.
Count Michael Clay and his Ladue water polo team among those who believe it.
The Rams took a 7-5 loss to Parkway Central on April 24 and it did not sit well.
Far from it.
“It exposed our own inadequacies,” Clay said. “That game forced everybody to look at themselves and what they found was we were playing too much as individuals and not enough as a team.”
The Rams pushed aside their individual agendas and the results have been impressive.
Ladue beat Lindbergh 6-1 to win the third-place match at the Lindbergh Invitational.
Ladue (14-6) has won four of its five matches since that Parkway Central loss. The only other team to beat them was St. Louis U. High and that came Saturday afternoon in the tournament semifinals.
“We talked it out, we worked it out and what we've found is the team we always thought we were supposed to be,” Clay said. “I could not be prouder of the team game they're playing.”
Lindbergh (18-5) has lost back-to-back matches for just the second time this season but few would have been this frustrating. The Flyers fired a barrage of shots at Ladue's goal only to see them hit the posts, cross bar or be saved by goalie Dixon Bezzant. The single goal is the lowest total for Lindbergh this season. It's something the Rams can hang their hats on going forward this season.
“It's a testament to our drop defense,” junior Brandon Murdock said. “It's everyone on the team realizing the situations in the pool and that someone else needed help so it shows the awareness is growing across the team.”
Joel Hsieh had two goals to lead Ladue. Lindbergh got its lone tally from Casey Natsch.