Nick Pacelli and Kyle Baumgarner were quite the pair last year in boys' water polo.
The Villa Park High duo offered a one-two punch on offense that had opposing teams shuttering. They shared the team's season scoring title with 117 goals each.
But this year's different as Baumgarner has graduated and is starting his freshman year at UCLA, leaving Pacelli, a senior, pretty much on his own.
Despite the loss of one of the county's top two-meter men--Baumgarner was a Times first-team all-county selection and MVP of the Century League--Pacelli is kind of glad his former comrade is a Bruin now.
"Last year, it was pretty much left up to us to run things," Pacelli said. "The team depended on Kyle and I to get things moving. But this year is different. And I like it much better like this."
Unlike last year's two-man show, Pacelli said this year will be a team effort.
"It must be, if we want to get anywhere this season. Besides, I can't very well pass to myself," said Pacelli, a Times' all-county second-team member.
Pacelli says every player must work in the best interest of the team, which, he adds, is the way water polo is supposed to be played.
"I think this team can do it," he said. "I'll offer whatever guidance I can. And it does put the pressure on me. But the team knows what it has to do. And by the end of the season, I think we'll be ready for the playoffs."
Villa Park Coach Jeff Ehrlich has faith in his team, and he thinks they'll get better with each game. But he also realizes that its success will depend on Pacelli's performance and whether he can take on the role as team leader.
"Nick has to keep his poise through four quarters," Ehrlich said. "He's a very competitive kid and sometimes that has gotten the best of him. Fortunately, that has been his biggest improvement over the summer. But it has to be hard when you're usually going against the opposing team's best player most of the time, double-teamed or getting beaten up on.
"But if Nick can keep his mental game intact, stay positive, and, of course, healthy, we should be right in there with the top teams in the county."
Ehrlich said Pacelli has made an effort to take on this role.
"He's been coming to practice early and staying late, working with the guys who need help," Ehrlich said. "But he's going to have to keep things positive when the situation might seem bad. He needs to encourage his teammates. The last thing these guys need is their best player screaming at them during a game. He needs to remain humble."
With a left-handed shot that looks as if it's spring-loaded, Pacelli is considered one of the top drivers in the Southern Section, which is why he's double-, even triple-teamed in almost every game he plays.
At 5 feet 9 inches, Pacelli isn't a dominating presence. But he makes up for it in speed, intelligence and aggression, which he said is one of his stronger traits.
"I play very hard. I want to win and I hate to lose," Pacelli said. "The best part of my game is my counterattack. I'm a very intense player. Sometimes I get frustrated, but I never give up."
Pacelli was selected to play for the U.S. Jr. National Water Polo Team, which won the Jr. National Championships last July in Cuba. But Pacelli missed the trip because he caught the flu.
"It was a real disappointment," Pacelli said. "But I can understand why they didn't want me to go. The last thing they needed was for the team to come down with the flu."
Pacelli learned a lot from his summer experience, though, playing with the nation's best high school athletes and some college players as well.
Said Pacelli: "I found out I can keep up."