Rockford boys water polo takes sixth state championship in seven years

The Rams—including fully clothed coaches—celebrate victory in the pool.

The Rams—including fully clothed coaches—celebrate victory in the pool. Photo by GORDON PETERSON

Rockford finished a storybook season with a thrilling 11-10 victory over East Kentwood to capture the 2009 Michigan Water Polo Association (MWPA) boys state championship. The Rams (30-12) won their sixth state championship in seven years with an exceptional display of teamwork. From the beginning of the season to the last goal of the title game, the 2009 Rams were an unselfish unit, each player doing whatever was needed to help the team win.

The team’s five captains, seniors Derik Bothma, Tyler Manikowski, Kyle Peterson and Connor Thelen, and junior Pat Fase were overjoyed after the game. They spoke with one voice about the team’s success: “This weekend was about teamwork and about heart. We came determined to give everything we had. And every time we needed something to happen, a different teammate stepped up.”

The Rockford Rams water polo team celebrates their sixth
The Rockford Rams water polo team celebrates their sixth state championship victory in seven years. Photo by GORDON PETERSON

 Teams and fans from around the state gathered at Birmingham’s Seaholm High School as the tournament opened Friday afternoon, Nov. 13. Rockford faced preseason MWPA favorite Birmingham Groves in a defensive struggle punctuated with timely scoring. The Rams held on for a 6-4 victory. Rugged team defense and junior Jeff Schmitt’s game-high four goals moved Rockford on to the semifinals.

The Rams’ semifinal opponent was last year’s state champ, Ann Arbor Huron. Huron’s high-powered offense found a way to score against Rockford’s defense. But the Rams showed some firepower of their own, finishing with a 13-9 victory, led by five goals from Bothma and four from sophomore Eric Chisholm. Fase’s 21 saves in the goal sealed the victory.

The final game Saturday evening, Nov. 14, pitted Rockford against rival East Kentwood. For the third game in a row, Schmitt and sophomore Bryan Wasberg jumpstarted the offense, giving the Rams the early lead. But the high-scoring Falcons fought back. They tied the score in the third period and took a two-goal lead in the fourth period. That’s when the Rams showed the character of champions. They tightened up their defense while Schmitt scored three quick goals at the other end to give Rockford the lead.

Kentwood answered again, knotting the score at 10-10. With less than a minute remaining in the game, Rockford’s top scorer Bothma rose up high out of the water with ball in hand. Everyone in the natatorium expected him to shoot. But, as if to symbolize the heart and soul of this team, he passed the ball to teammate Manikowski, who muscled in a shot that gave Rockford the lead for good.

Coach Dave McWatters, soaking wet from a post-game celebration in the pool, praised the team effusively, “I couldn’t be happier with these guys. They took on every challenge that came their way this year and committed to keep learning through it all. We came here this weekend knowing we’d have to play three great games. And that’s what we did. We tried to focus on one possession at a time, one period at a time.” The result is a seventh state polo championship for Rockford!

Senior captains
Senior captains Derik Bothma, Connor Thelen, Kyle Peterson and Tyler Manikowski lift the state championship trophy. Photo by GORDON PETERSON

Tim Erickson, Rockford High School athletic director, credits the coaches for making the team competitive year after year, “This coaching staff prepares players as well as any in the state. I couldn’t be more proud of what this team has accomplished this year.”

Four Rams received individual All State Tournament honors. Schmitt earned honorable mention. Fase was named to the second team. Bothma and Chisholm were named to the first team. But it was an entire team that hoisted the state championship trophy. No awards were given out for gritty one-on-one defense, crisp passing, quick reactions, sound decision-making, or helping a teammate out of a jam. But the 2009 Rams know that it takes an entire team doing thousands of little things right in order to win it all.

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