by PATRICK KEELEY
Rockford’s girls water polo team attempted to repeat as state champions at Jenison on Friday, May 29, but lost to Ann Arbor Pioneer 6-4. On Saturday, May 30, the Rams lost to West Ottawa 8-4, before winning their final game of the season against East Grand Rapids, 8-4.
The Rams knew they had to beat Pioneer to get into the championship, but it didn’t happen. Pioneer star Clio Finnegan, playing with a broken hand, scored three goals and led a stingy defense that thwarted several Rockford six-on-five advantages. The Pioneers held Molly Wooldridge to one goal and shut out Mary Keeley and Kelsey Vermeer. Pioneer led 2-0 after one quarter, but after Keeley won the sprint, Natalie Beeg sent in a rocket to get the Rams’ fans going and make it 2-1. The Rams missed a chance to tie with a six-on-five, and Pioneer scored instead to go up 3-1. The Rams got another kick-out, and had another six-on-five and failed-this time on the ensuing play, Rockford had a man kicked out, and Pioneer scored to go up 4-1 at half.
In the third, Pioneer won the sprint and scored to make it 5-1. Kaitlyn Korhorn began blocking shot after shot from then on, for a total of 17 blocks on the day. Then Ashley Gremel made a beautiful lob shot and it was 5-2.
In the fourth, Keeley won the sprint, Wooldridge scored and it was 5-3. Christina Weston powered her way through the hole and scored to get Rockford’s fourth goal, but the Pioneers ran out the clock and got another goal to beat Rockford, 6-4.
On Saturday, the West Ottawa Panthers made school history and beat Rockford for the first time ever since their program began. The Panthers had been humiliated on Friday night by Ann Arbor Huron, losing 8-1, had been beaten on their senior night by Rockford, 8-6, and lost a regional semifinal in sudden-death triple overtime to Rockford, 11-10.
The Rams came out sluggish, and it was 4-0 at half. Keeley scored to start the third, but West Ottawa got it right back and it was 5-1. Beeg scored on a six-on-five to end the third at 5-2. However, after a kick-out, the Panthers scored to make it 6-2, and got another to go up 7-2. Ariel Beattie got open and blasted a shot to the upper left corner and it was 7-3. Beeg got another with 2:27 to go and it was 7-4. But the Panthers got one more and won, 8-4.
This left Rockford and East Grand Rapids (EGR), both 0-2 and playing to not be 0-3. Playing their last game, the Rams seniors Wooldridge, Vermeer, Keeley, Korhorn, Beattie and Marshall all got much playing time and furiously fought to win. Keeley won all four sprints, blocked shots, made steals and scored five goals to lead the way. Vermeer made defensive stop after stop, made assists, and scored the second goal of the game. Wooldridge denied EGR any close-up shots, made assists, and scored the third goal. At the half, it was a barn-burner with Rockford leading, 3-2.
Keeley got goal number two right away in the third and the score was 4-2. But EGR fought back and tied it up at 4-4. Then Weston made another hard-fought shot in the hole to give the Rams the lead for good.
In the fourth, Keeley got three more goals on well-executed plays and great passing, and Korhorn was unbeatable in goal. The Rams ended up with one win on the weekend, 8-4.
Coach Reickard was proud of his team, and said, “We barely lost to Ann Arbor Pioneer and they ended up winning the state championship.”
Ann Arbor Pioneer last won a state title in girls water polo in 2003, with the help of his star player Alison Gregorka, who was instrumental in the success of the 2008 U.S. Olympic team that won a silver medal in Beijing.
Reickard continued, “The girls fought hard all year. There were five new starters, as we graduated many seniors last year, including the state MVP. We have had lots of success this year from a very talented and intelligent group of athletes. We have nine players who earned Academic All-State and our team has a combined average GPA of 3.83. Our seventh-place finish at state is disappointing, but a fine accomplishment.”