by CINDY M. CRANMER
Two of Rockford’s boys water polo teams recently participated in the USA Water Polo Junior Olympics, which took place in California. The top 84 teams in the nation played at the event.
Rockford finished 41st out of the 84 teams in the 16-and-under category, while they finished 45th of the 84 teams in the 18-and-under category.
“We had a great time,” said Coach Dave McWatters. “We’ve been going about 10 years. We learn from the best teams in the nation.”
Rockford needed to qualify in order to participate in the USA Water Polo Junior Olympics. The best finish they had was 19th in 2004.
The Midwest Qualifying Tournament takes place in mid-June, where the top teams in each age group qualify to attend the Junior Olympics. Rockford finished third in the 16-and-under age category and second in the 18-and-under category. The boys played against teams put together from the entire Midwest region, including Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and Michigan. The top four places in each age bracket qualify to go to the Junior Olympics.
“It was great weather in California,” McWatters said. “We were able to watch and learn from some of the best athletes in the United States. Some of these athletes could compete in the Olympics in the future.”
Each team played seven games of which Rockford won three and lost four. McWatters said their teams were “very competitive” in playing, losing by only a small number of goals. He said the California teams always are in the top places since they can play year-round outside with the weather. “They certainly dominate the sport,” he said.
Some area high schools sent players to Rockford’s team to be a part of a unifying experience and to play.
Water polo combines the elements of many other sports played in the water. The sport has elements of soccer, lacrosse, basketball, hockey and swimming. Each team has a goalie and six field players, who all swim throughout the game played in a deep pool, and try to score on the other goal. Players can only use one hand to field the ball or pass other than the goalie.
“This is the largest water polo tournament in the world,” McWatters said. He said there are about 350 total teams in the different age groups.
McWatters said 29 players traveled to California with 14 on one team and 15 on the other. He said 21 were from Rockford and eight were from other area schools.
He said the California teams also have the advantage as many of their players have been playing since the age of six or seven. Rockford’s players finish their careers with about four to five years of playing.
“We know when we go out there we’re playing against the very best,” McWatters said. “This means we are learning from the very best. We can put things to good use that we learned there.”
McWatters said the teams had “enough success that they will not be disheartened.”
“The biggest thing our players learned is how hard you have to work to be that good,” McWatters said. “The guys realize how much dedication it takes to be part of the best teams in the nation.”
Rockford High School boys have had many successful seasons in their history. During the last 12 years, their team won eight of 12 state championships.
McWatters was key in starting a girls’ water polo team at Rockford as well. A former player, Scott Boltz, who was the goalie during the first state championship in 2000, now is the girls’ team coach.