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St. Ignatius Sister Water Polo Stars Seal Family's Legacy in Pool

 St. Ignatius College Prep sisters Tammy Stelnicki and Jennifer Stelnicki have water polo in their bloodlines.
Tammy Stelnicki and Jennifer Stelnicki
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LITTLE ITALY — If Tammy and Jennifer Stelnicki had been born with a water polo ball in their hands, no one would have been surprised.

The Stelnickis come from a legendary water polo lineage, starting with their Hall of Fame grandfathers, extending to their All-American mother, aunts and uncles, and continuing to their all-state older brother and sister.

Now Tammy and Jennifer, a senior utility player and sophomore goalie, respectively, at St. Ignatius College Prep, are three wins away from a second straight state title and adding another major accomplishment to their family's ultra-long list.

"The family still leaves its mark on the game. They still seem to make big asterisks along the way," said St. Ignatius coach Michael Cashman, whose No. 2 Wolfpack faces Lincoln-Way East on Friday at Stevenson High School in an IHSA state quarterfinal.

 Jennifer Stelnicki (l.) and her sister Tammy are star water polo players at St. Ignatius College Prep. Jennifer, a sophomore, was all-state in goalie in helping the Wolfpack to last year's state title. Tammy, an all-state utility player, is heading to Arizona State, one of the country's top programs.
Jennifer Stelnicki (l.) and her sister Tammy are star water polo players at St. Ignatius College Prep. Jennifer, a sophomore, was all-state in goalie in helping the Wolfpack to last year's state title. Tammy, an all-state utility player, is heading to Arizona State, one of the country's top programs.
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DNAinfo/Justin Breen

Justin Breen joins DNAinfo Radio to chat about the Stelnicki sisters and their water polo roots:

Said Tammy, who recently signed to play for Arizona State, one of the country's top programs: "For us, water polo is just a thing everyone in our family did. In our family, everybody has a good water polo story to tell."

A Hall Of Fame lineage

The Stelnickis' grandfathers, the late Philip Stelnicki and Jim "Moose" Mulcrone, are arguably the most famous names in Illinois water polo coaching history.

They were inductees of the inaugural Illinois Water Polo Hall of Fame class in 1986. Both have awards named after them: The Philip J. Stelnicki Award for the state's top senior boy and the Jim "Moose" Mulcrone Award for the boys coach of the year. 

Philip Stelnicki, a Humboldt Park native, had tremendous success as a swimming and water polo coach at Weber and Fenwick high schools before he led Loyola Academy to eight top-three finishes at the water polo state meet from 1977 to 1986, including the 1978 championship.

Mulcrone boasts an even more impressive resume. From 1980 to 1998, he claimed 13 state titles as Brother Rice's water polo skipper. His teams also placed second five times and third on four occasions, and Mulcrone finished his tenure 724-79 at the all-boys Southwest Side Catholic school.

He also coached countless players, including Cashman — a two-time all-state and all-American at St. Rita — for Chicago Aquatics and Water Polo Club.

"Between 'Moose' and Phil, they probably coached over 1,000 kids," said Cashman, 33, of Bridgeport.

The Mulcrones had nine children, and eight of them played water polo at a high level. All six of the Mulcrone boys earned all-state honors at Brother Rice. Two of the three daughters, including Tammy and Jennifer's mother, Sally, did the same for Morgan Park High School. Many were collegiate stars and all-Americans, too.

Sally Mulcrone, a member of the U.S. national team in the early 1980s, met Philip's son, Joe, in the late 1970s while she was a lifeguard at Oak Street Beach and he performed the same task at North Avenue Beach. Lifeguarding is and was a common practice for the Chicago area's top swimmers, and although Joe did not play competitive water polo, he could hold his own in the lake.

"We didn't go out because of our water polo connections, but it was something we just knew about each other," said Sally Stelnicki, who was inducted into the Illinois Water Polo Hall of Fame in 2006.

Sally and Joe, a Chicago firefighter, live in Beverly and have four children: Matthew, 22; Katie, 21; Tammy, 18; and Jennifer, 16. All have been dominant in the pool and were seemingly in the water forever.

Matthew was Catholic League player of the year as a senior at Brother Rice — where his uncles Billy and Scott Mulcrone were coaches — and now suits up for Iona College, where another former Brother Rice alumnus, "Moose" Mulcrone protege, Brian Kelly, is the head coach.

Katie was the state's player of the year as a 12th-grader at St. Ignatius who also chose Iona for her collegiate career. Cashman also played for Kelly at Iona.

"Water polo is real close-knit," said Cashman, whose Wolfpack won its 10th sectional title in 11 years after beating Evanston Township High School 9-3 on Saturday. Tammy, who as a utility player is like a soccer midfielder, tallied four goals, two assists and three steals in the victory. Jennifer made six saves.

When Cashman was in high school, he recalls Matthew and Katie running around the pool deck and competing against players more than 10 years older. Tammy and Jennifer weren't that far behind, first hitting the cold water when they were less than 5 years old, many times while their mom worked at Ridge Park in Beverly.

"We were thrown into the pool when we were little," Jennifer said, somewhat jokingly. "I remember playing in Portage Park's pool when I was a fifth-grader against people from college and high school. I was getting half-drowned, but it made me so much better."

Stepping up to the net

Last year, St. Ignatius didn't have a goalie, so Jennifer stepped in, even though she had never played the position. All she did was lead the Wolfpack to the first team state title in the history of the school, which was founded in 1869. She also was one of Illinois' three all-state goalies.

"She has a lot of heart, and she tries the hardest of everyone in the pool," Tammy said of Jennifer. "And she was successful as a goalie because she knows how to play the game in the field."

Tammy almost certainly will be named all-state for the fourth straight time this year. Her prep teams have concluded the season third, third and first in her previous three campaigns, and she fully expects to add a second winning trophy to the school case this weekend.

Wherever their games take place, Tammy and Jennifer have a large cheering section of uncles, aunts and cousins. They almost always hear from someone poolside who knows about their water polo heritage.

"I'll meet a referee who played with my uncle, and he'll tell me my uncle gave him a broken nose once," Tammy said.

The Stelnicki siblings don't get that rough during the rare chances to practice together during the summer, when they'll spend hours throwing the ball around near the boat slips of the Hammond (Ind.) harbor. 

Tammy and Jennifer said they can't see their lives without water polo.

And the sisters stressed they're honored to continue the family tradition.

"To us," Tammy said, "treading water is like walking."

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