If senior co-captain Eric Chisholm was nervous about starting the state tournament schedule, he surely did not show it. Chisholm led the Rockford men’s water polo team as they began their state tournament run Friday night, Nov. 11, against Ann Arbor Skyline.
“It is my senior year, my last state tournament; I did not want to let the team down,” Chisholm said.
Chisholm scored Rockford’s first goal and then 20 seconds later threaded a beautiful pass to hole-setter Grant Beach, who pushed it into the net. The Michigan High School Water Polo Association state tournament pitted the top eight teams from around the state competing at Saline High School. The team claiming the state title would have to win three straight games.
The Rams (42-2), the number-one-ranked team in the state, opened Friday evening with a 14-2 victory over the Eagles of Ann Arbor Skyline. The win set up a state semifinal grudge match between the Rams and the Ann Arbor Huron River Rats Saturday morning. The Rats are the only team to defeat the Rams this season, and are led by talented Serbian exchange student Aleksandar Petrovich.
The match between the Rats and Rams was high on passion, emotion and drama.
Saturday morning, in front of a standing-room-only crowd, the River Rats and Rams squared off in a contest proving to live up to the hype. Both teams played with focused intensity in a tightly contested first quarter.
Petrovich gave the River Rats a 1-0 lead as the first period came to an end. In a back-and-forth battle, the Rams and Rats traded goals and ended the half with a 4-3 River Rat lead.
The Rats exploded in the third period behind Petrovich, ending the period with a commanding 9-4 lead over the Rams.
The Rams refused to give in, opening the fourth period by scoring two quick goals. As the River Rats slowed their play to work on the clock, the Rams continued a thrilling comeback by scoring a total of five goals in the fourth period. The River Rats were able to score one goal in the fourth period on a five-meter penalty shot, which turned out to be the deciding goal as the Rats held on to win a thrilling 10-9 victory over the Rams.
The victory set up a state championship match between the River Rats and Ann Arbor Pioneer. The Pioneers defeated Hudsonville in the other semifinal match-up by a score of 5-3. Rockford and the Eagles of Hudsonville faced off late Saturday afternoon to determine third place.
In the match versus the Eagles, the Rams played only the seniors until the two-minute mark at the end of the fourth period. The large Ram fan base gave the seniors a well-deserved standing ovation as they left the pool for the final time.
The emotions continued as the juniors, before entering the pool, greeted each senior with hugs as they went to the bench.
Coach McWatters had high praise for this year’s senior class. “These seniors will achieve great things in their lives ahead,” said McWatters. “They are academically gifted and goal-driven. They know that they can face the toughest of challenges, in success and disappointment, and find a way to live honorably.”
Rockford went on to defeat the Eagles 13-3, capturing third place. State tournament leaders for the Rams were Eric Chisholm in goals and Mac Finnie leading in both steals and assists. In the championship match between the two Ann Arbor teams, the River Rats and Pioneers, the Pioneers captured the state title by pulling out a thrilling 6-5 victory over the Huron River Rats.
The 2011 team captured conference, district and regional titles and fielded 10 Academic All Americans. Chisholm and Justin Hulsebus were voted First Team All State honors while sophomore Craig Wasberg achieved Honorable Mention All State accolades.
McWatters expressed a great deal of pride in this team and summed up the season by stating, “As the coach, I could not be prouder of how these young men competed under the toughest of challenges. They played their hearts out and even in defeat, earned the respect of everyone present. They handled the pain of the loss with great inner strength. Everyone in our Rockford community should be proud of the values for which these young men stand.”