Rams repeat as state water polo champs

The dynasty continues. Rockford entered the Michigan Water Polo Association state championships at West Zeeland, who was ranked fourth in the state, on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 12-13. But by the time the final whistle blew, the Rams were once again on top, claiming their second consecutive state championship, their seventh in eight years, and their eighth in 11 years.

The Rockford Rams win their second straight Michigan Water Polo Association state championship. photo by TRACY BROWN

Four Rams received All State honors. Junior Bryan Wasberg and senior Jeff Schmitt were named second team All State, while junior Eric Chisholm and senior Pat Fase were named first team All State. In addition, Fase’s stellar goalie play throughout the weekend earned him a share of the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award.

“I’m so proud of every member of the team,” beamed Fase. “We had a small senior class to provide leadership, but it was the underclassmen, including the entire bench, who did the hard work it took to win the championship.”

Rockford opened the tournament with a convincing 9-2 win against a scrappy team from Ann Arbor Pioneer. Six different Rams scored goals, including two each by Wasberg, Chisholm and junior Alex Savage. But it was the Ram defense, led by Chisholm with three steals, and Fase’s goaltending that made the difference.

Eric Chisholm, first team All State, defends a shot by East Kentwood’s leading scorer. Photo by TRACY BROWN

In the semifinals, Rockford squared off against the top ranked team in the state, Ann Arbor Huron. The River Rats feature the state’s top scorer, senior David Hasegan, the other co-MVP of the tournament.

Rockford jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the first period. But Huron, on the strength of two quick goals by Hasegan, stormed back to take the lead in the second. After a Rockford timeout, Chisholm drove to the net, took a pass from Savage, and flipped in an amazing no-look shot to tie the score. The next time down the pool, Chisholm found Schmitt open for a score that restored the Rockford lead.

Huron scored three more goals, but Rockford answered each time, and hung on for an 8-7 victory.

The story of the game was the team’s defense on Hasegan. Wasberg wrestled with him for most of the game, with Chisholm sprinting back on defense to help out, collecting five steals for his efforts. And when the defense didn’t hold, Fase made several brilliant stops of Hasegan’s rocket shots. Chisholm finished with three goals, and Wasberg and Savage with two each. Freshman Craig Wasberg chipped in three steals. And the Rams headed for the championship game.

Rockford’s first team All State performers Eric Chisholm and goalie Pat Fase. Photo by TRACY BROWN

“Huron is a very tough team,” said B. Wasberg. “They had beaten us several times this year. We were determined to play our hearts out. We did that and were able to come away with the win.”

The finals were a rematch of last year’s state championship: Rockford against East Kentwood. The Rams got the better of the Falcons last year, but Kentwood had avenged that loss by defeating Rockford at the regional finals just two weeks ago.

“This was our last game to play together as a team,” said Schmitt. “Our plan was to give it our all and just keep attacking. Beating Huron was huge, so we had to guard against suffering a letdown in the Kentwood game.”

The Falcons started strong, scoring the first goal of the game. But Schmitt responded to tie the score. Savage then scored off a pass from C. Wasberg to give the Rams a 2-1 lead after one period.

First team All Staters Eric Chisholm and goalie Pat Fase (along with freshman Craig Wasberg) await an East Kentwood shot. Photo by TRACY BROWN

The Rams broke the game open in the second period. Savage scored on a pass from Schmitt. Schmitt scored on a pass from Chisholm. C. Wasberg assisted on another Savage score. And finally Fase scored on a pool-length buzzer-beater that slipped through the Kentwood goalie’s hands, giving the Rams a 6-1 halftime advantage.

Rockford’s defense held tight in the second half, and soon the Rams, including Coach McWatters in his street clothes, were in the pool celebrating an 8-3 victory and another state championship.

“We knew both Huron and Kentwood could score fast,” said defensive leader Chisholm. “So we worked to play tough defense on every possession. And on offense when the other team would focus on stopping one or two of us, someone else would step up.”

That someone was often Savage, who led the team with eight goals for the weekend, including four in the championship game.

Alex Savage, Rockford’s leading scorer for the weekend, breaks away from the pack for a shot. Photo by TRACY BROWN

“I really wanted us to win this for our seniors,” commented Savage, “so this wasn’t the time to play it safe. Some scoring opportunities came my way, I took some risks, and they paid off!”

Just back from his celebratory dunking, Coach McWatters was glowing with pride in this team. “You cannot win a championship without tremendous senior leadership. Our three senior captains, Pat Fase, Jeff Schmitt and Jared Martella, kept us steady through a number of challenges and inspired the team to put in the hard work required to win a championship.”

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