Ever since the start of the Mother McAuley water polo program, Nancy O’Brien-Kane has been there.

Helping to organize the first team in the 1980s with her mother, Eileen, the head coach, O’Brien-Kane later coached the team and led the Mighty Macs to back-to-back state titles.

Now, O’Brien-Kane has returned as coach of the Macs, and she’s ready to go.

O’Brien-Kane, a 1984 McAuley grad, replaced Vanessa Carroll, who stepped down after nine dominant seasons coaching the Macs.

“I’m especially grateful for my mom because this program would not exist without her,” O’Brien-Kane said at a recent practice. “She really is very proud of that accomplishment. She raised five great kids, but she also made a huge impact on McAuley swimmers, divers and water-polo players. I’m thrilled to be back and working with these outstanding young women.”

Girls and boys water polo were first sanctioned by the Illinois High School Association in 2001.

As co-coaches, O’Brien-Kane and Maura Tiernan led the Mighty Macs to consecutive state titles, going a combined 54-4 during the 2002 and 2003 seasons.

Tiernan is also back with the Macs and will coach the junior-varsity squad.

Water polo has developed and grown over the years, and O’Brien-Kane has a game plan.

“The game is much more physical, but you can play smarter instead of the extreme physicality,” she said. “Use your brain and athleticism to win games.”

Carroll led the Mighty Macs to a 214-78 record over her nine seasons from 2010-2019. During Carroll’s tenure, McAuley finished third in state twice and took home fourth-place hardware four times.

Last spring, McAuley finished third in the state.

However, this year the team has some work to do as star junior Maddie Schultz transferred to Lincoln-Way East. Including Schultz, the Macs lost the five top goal scorers from last season’s third-place team.

Despite those challenges, senior Morgan Riordan said the team will be ready.

“It’s going to be a good year,” Riordan said. “We have so much potential on this team. Everyone seems to think we’re not going to be that good. From what we’ve seen at open pools and tryouts, we’re going to be good. We have a lot of talented freshmen coming in and a lot of potential.”

Riordan (Mt. Greenwood) is a Salem University recruit.

Senior Brigid Barkmeier praised the coaching staff. She’s hoping to make the most of her senior year campaign.

“It’s just the start, but Coach is so set on a positive environment and teamwork,” Barkmeier said. “It will be us working together. We’ve all had the skill and always have. This year, it’s developing that confidence to step up.”

Mother McAuley opened the season on March 9, after press time, at Lincoln-Way East.

McAuley alumnae Clare Bryar and Fran Williamson are also on the coaching staff. Bryar is a Morgan Park resident, and Williamson is a Beverly resident.

O’Brien-Kane said opponents should expect the same aggressive game plan that the Mighty Macs have used to achieve success in the past.

“We share Vanessa’s coaching philosophy: defense wins games,” O’Brien-Kane said. “That will be our strength. The girls understand playing the lanes on defense and intercepting passes.”