Evanston’s boys water polo team got an up-close look at one of the best players in the state of Illinois Thursday.

And Victor Perez of Lyons Township proved too much for even one of the best team defenses in the state to handle at the Illinois High School Association state tournament held at Stevenson High School.

Perez scored 4 goals and led the Lions to a 7-3 triumph over the Wildkits in a quarterfinal matchup, ending one of the most successful seasons in ETHS history. Coach Kevin Auger’s squad finished the 2018 season with a 28-4 record, establishing a single season school record for victories and advancing to the Elite Eight for just the second time in program history.

The Wildkits counted goals from sophomore Ben Coleman, junior Nate Perkoski and senior co-captain Lucas Verrilli after falling behind 5-0 in the second quarter Thursday, but couldn’t match Lyons’ firepower led by Perez.

“We didn’t play our best game, but it wasn’t anywhere near our worst game, either,” Auger pointed out. “That No. 11 (Perez) is basically the best player in the state. He’s strong and quick, and he’s tough to cover. All year our defense has been quick to get there when the ball goes into the middle — but he was quicker than we were.

“Lyons is very good at putting him in a position to get the ball and put it in, too. Lyons is ranked No. 1 for a reason and it was just the bad luck of the draw that we had to play them in the first round.”

Lyons scored in double figures in all three of its sectional tournament victories, but Evanston’s season-long reliance on its defense still showed through as they held the winners to half that total Thursday. Auger’s decision to switch to a defense with zone concepts — a style similar to a matchup zone in basketball and one more common in international play — paid big dividends as the Kits held opponents to an average of about 5 goals per game.

“It’s a defense we’ve never played since I came to Evanston,” said the coach, a native of Canada. “You have to give all of our kids credit because we changed things about 75 percent (from last year). Every bone in their bodies would tell them to go get the guy with the ball, but we asked them to resist that urge and not do that. We moved and switched a lot on defense and everyone had to be on their game to make it work.

“We have swimmers who are talented, but sometimes they don’t understand that this is a team sport. Even when they’re playing man-to-man defense, it’s not their only responsibility, and it’s hard to grasp that. You have to do more and put a lot more energy into it when you play a zone like this. You really have to have your head on a swivel.”

The adjustment was smoother because the defense was backstopped by one of the best goalies in school history, junior Henry Goodman, and because the Wildkits were a veteran unit that returned every starter except Thomas Fies from a year ago.

“In the past we’ve had guys who couldn’t or wouldn’t make adjustments that you have to make in any team sport,” Auger said. “This group was so much better because they were willing to listen, and willing to do what the coaches asked of them. They worked hard every day and their dedication was way better than some of the teams we’ve had in the past.

“We had a couple of tough losses to New Trier and St. Patrick (double overtime) within about a week’s time, and I was beginning to wonder at that point if we’d ever win a close one. Then we started rattling off close win after close win after close win. The kids all really bought into what we were trying to do. We looked at our strengths and our weaknesses. We knew we wouldn’t be a high-powered offense, but we knew we could certainly stop other teams from scoring.”

Co-captains Verrilli and Jacob Finn-Samuels are among the handful of seniors the program will lose to graduation “and Lucas and Jacob are two guys who will be really hard to replace” according to Auger. The two seniors and Goodman were both selected to the all-Central Suburban League South division team, and the trio was also chosen to the all-sectional team.

But Perkoski finished as the team’s second leading scorer this spring and starters Peter Iachini and Rafael  de Gouvea will return, along with rising sophomores Coleman, Grant King and Brendan Long.

“The last loss was disappointing, but I certainly can’t be disappointed with the season we had,” the coach added. “And I’m really excited about the future.”