Let’s start at the end. State championship game—end of third period—and Rockford water polo senior captain Tyler Manikowski has been struggling. At the side of the pool during the quarter break, he climbed out and said to Coach Dave McWatters, “Coach, put Eric in. He’s playing better than me”—Eric Chisholm the sophomore, Manikowski the senior. The senior captain gave way to a kid two years younger, a kid truly playing great water polo, saying, “Go, Eric. Go play. Go win this game.”
With their tremendous shooters, Kentwood soon pulled ahead by two, but Rockford fought back with junior Jeff Schmitt’s three great goals, and then Kentwood scored a penalty shot to tie.
Now under a minute, McWatters called time. Back at the side of the pool, he’s decided on the lineup to finish regulation time—six starters plus either Chisholm or Manikowski. The coach turned to Manikowski, who had been on the bench now for most of the fourth quarter, and said “Tyler, you’re the senior. It’s your call. Can you do it?” “Put me in, coach,” Manikowski replied.
Peterson, to Bothma, to Thelen to Manikowksi is how the passing went. Manikowski had the greatest step-out to the ball he’s ever had, turned, saw the back of the net, and blew the ball past Kentwood’s great goalie, who had just moved to counter Bothma’s—and then Thelen’s—fakes.
Manikowski’s two-meter defender hardly reacted. The defender was too tired. He had played every single second of the game.
Coach McWatters commented, “Tyler’s unselfishness is a powerful example of what won us a state championship. Tyler calling himself out, making way for the young kid who was playing the best polo of his life, rested Tyler enough for that last minute, so he had the energy to make the greatest play of his life. Tyler’s unselfishness helped win us a state championship.” Many things go into winning a state championship.
Peterson, to Bothma, to Thelen to Manikowski—that was the last play. Peterson, as he always does, set up his teammates for success. Bothma—the great shooter now because he’s also become a great passer—rose up while everyone thought he was taking the last shot, and the goalie committed to his side of the cage, but Bothma passed to Thelen. Thelen, rising out to his waist and faking to shoot, forced the goalie to commit to the near side. However, Thelen passed to Manikowski at set, and they scored!
Peterson, to Bothma, to Thelen to Manikowski—the four seniors—always have each other’s back, and will forever know that they inseparably led their team to the state championship.
The end-of-season awards for Rockford men’s water polo are as follows:
Most Improved: junior goalie and captain Pat Fase
Best Defense: senior captain Kyle Peterson
Most Valuable Player: senior captain Derik Bothma
Coaches Leadership Awards: senior captain Connor Thelen
Resilience Award: senior captain Tyler Manikowski
The team’s season record is 30-12, with their seventh state championship in 10 years (2000, 2003-2007, and 2009).
Commentary from Coach McWatters:
Last spring, Derik Bothma, Kyle Peterson, Tyler Manikowski, Connor Thelen and I met at Taco Bell. We talked about how tough this season was going to be, graduating six starters, only Derik having significant if any state tournament experience. We talked about how everyone was counting us out, even our friends on the other teams. and about how a majority of our varsity team would have to be made up of freshmen and sophomores. Just look at the numbers: over 16 on a varsity team, with only eight total seniors and juniors—that means a lot of younger players.
I promised them that day that I would do everything I could to win this year, as long as they could promise me that they would give it everything they had.
During the darkest of days this season, we would renew that promise. I will keep teaching, we will keep learning, we will not give up. We will do everything we can to win this year.
Last week we met again at Taco Bell. Now we know the end of the story. We sat in the very same seats, and talked for almost two hours, reliving Derik’s tremendous shooting and steals (156-3.6 per game).
Kyle’s amazing defense was also a topic, shutting down guys who are 6’8” Division I swimmers, and 6’6” 240-pounders, and some of the greatest shooters I’ve seen in high school water polo.
We talked about Tyler’s resilience, and the hundreds probably thousands of step-outs we practiced, all coming down to one of the best step-outs I’ve ever seen in high school water polo, with :42 seconds left in his career. If that’s not resilience, I don’t know what is.
We also spoke of Connor’s leadership—the glue keeping everyone together—returning day after day to face the fears and challenges, all the while being second on the team in assists and steals.
I told them about how that night two Saturdays ago, when they stepped forward to receive the state championship trophy, with the coaches, the several juniors and 18 freshmen and sophomores gathered behind them on the deck, I learned forward to all the younger players and spoke with all my heart, “Gentlemen, there are your leaders. There are your role models. Be like them!”