When the Rockford women’s water polo team kicked off their season in mid-March with the traditional Early Bird Tournament, many of their opponents didn’t take them too seriously. They had a young new coach, a junior goalie in net, and only five returning seniors, and those seniors hadn’t played much with the incoming juniors the past two years.
What those opponents didn’t count on was Rockford’s determination, commitment or the experience and skill of their new coach. The girls stepped up their game, learned plenty of lessons, and struggled through losses to Hudsonville, East Kentwood and Okemos. They also began to gel and implement the plays and drills taught to them.
Those opponents who thought the Lady Rams may not get past districts or regionals for a shot at the state title were quieted when the Rams emerged East District champions, then went into the May 21-22 regional tournament as first seed.
It was clear the Lady Rams came to play. When the final whistle blew, four of their players were named to regional teams and Head Coach Scott Voltz was voted Coach of the Year. Captain Natalie Beeg was named to the Honorable Mention Team, captain and junior goalie Tiffany Elenbaas was named to Second Team, and captain Ashley Gremel and sophomore Casey Wolfer were both named to the First Team. The honors were based on their overall season performance.
To make it into the regional championship game, the Lady Rams had to win their first two games. West Ottawa, Jenison, East Grand Rapids, Hudsonville, Portage Central, East Kentwood and Zeeland all had advanced to the West Regional Tournament from districts.
Rockford took on West Ottawa in round one, dominating from the start to win 12-5. Beeg led the scoring with three goals and one assist. Wolfer and freshman Adrianna Craft each had two goals. Goals also came from Gremel, sophomore Sarah Smith, junior Lauren Hulsebus, sophomore Abbey Finlayson, and junior Jamie VanPortfliet. Gremel, Wolfer and junior Taylor Downs combined on defense for 11 steals. Elenbaas was covering all corners of the net with 10 saves, one assist and two steals.
Every player saw action, including those from the junior varsity team, who were called up in the post season. Craft had to step up and learn the speed and intensity of the varsity game quickly when senior Christina Weston got a concussion during scrimmage play earlier in the week and was not cleared to play.
Rockford’s second-round competition was against East Grand Rapids, who had won a nail-biter against Jenison to advance. Rockford did not want to relive their slow start against the Pioneers in last week’s district match, and came out gunning. Gremel scored the first three goals and assisted on three from Wolfer and Craft. Craft also had three goals, Wolfer two, junior Brandi Fase one, and Van Portfliet one. The Rams beat the Pioneers 10-3. Elenbaas had another exceptional game in net with 14 saves and one steal.
The stage was set for the championship game, and the Lady Rams were fired up to have another shot at their fast and sizeable opponents from Hudsonville. The game was a battle of defense with several whistles and the first three goals scored on five-meter penalty shots—two by Hudsonville and one by Wolfer. Craft found the net on a behind-the-back shot from hole set to end the second quarter, 2-2.
Rockford came out firing in the third, going ahead 3-2 when Gremel found Wolfer open for the shot. Hudsonville rallied when the Rams missed on both breakaways and 6-5 opportunities, and charged back to end the third quarter 5-4.
The Rams didn’t give up, and scored in the fourth on a sweet lob shot by Beeg and a hole-set skipper by Craft. Unfortunately, the Rams’ defense didn’t hold up in the fourth and the Eagles scored twice for the win, 5-7.
Coach Voltz told the team how proud he was of their improvement and he and Assistant Coach Katie Clarin are looking forward to getting them ready for the state championships, which will be held in Saline, Mich. on June 4-5. The Rams will take on Ann Arbor Huron—who won a back-and-forth battle against Ann Arbor Pioneer in the East Regional—in game one. The Rams also will face undefeated Okemos in their battle for the state title.