Fans of high school water polo enjoyed two days of fast-paced action at the Rockford Invitational, August 28-29. Eight varsity boys teams, including seven of the state’s top 10, came to Rockford High School to test themselves in this early-season competition.
The Rockford Rams, a perennial polo powerhouse, entered the event with some questions. They graduated seven seniors (including six starters) from the 2008 team. And the 2009 varsity squad includes seven sophomores and two freshmen. Will this be the year that Rockford falls from the ranks of elite Michigan teams?
After finishing the weekend with four convincing wins and one close loss, the 2009 Rams are clearly a force to be reckoned with. According to Coach Dave McWatters, teams around the state now know that “whenever they play Rockford, it will be a battle. That’s what we accomplished this weekend. We’ll now build on that and keep getting better each week.”
The Rams opened the invitational with a 9-6 victory over Jenison. The game showcased the Rams’ depth and balance—seven different Rockford players scored goals, five had assists, and six made steals.
Rockford’s second game pitted them against Michigan’s top-ranked team, Birmingham Groves. Thanks to a suffocating defense, the Rams eventually pulled away to a 10-5 victory. Senior Derik Bothma led the team with four goals and five steals. Junior Jeff Schmitt added three assists.
In Rockford’s 9-6 win over Hudsonville, senior Kyle Peterson jumpstarted the offense with three goals. The Ram defense was stellar once again with six steals by Bothma and 14 saves by the goalie, junior Pat Fase.
Saturday brought another challenge as Rockford faced cross-state rival Ann Arbor Pioneer, the state’s second-ranked team. These two talented and well-coached teams played a brilliant game that ended in a 7-5 Pioneer victory.
The last game of the weekend featured Rockford against the high-scoring Chieftains from Okemos, who jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead. How would the young Rams respond following their heartbreaking loss to Pioneer? Rockford found the answer in its senior leadership. First, the team tightened the defensive screws, allowing only two more goals the rest of the game. Then seniors Connor Thelen, Bothma, and Tyler Manikowski scored two goals each, leading to a 7-4 Ram victory.
“We had a good weekend that gives us a glimpse of what our season could be,” said Thelen after the final game. “Now we want to keep improving.”
Get ready for another exciting year of Rockford Rams water polo!