At this year’s State Tournament on November 10-11 in Ann Arbor, Rockford’s battle cry of “Ready to Repeat!” proved more prophetic than anyone on the Men’s Water Polo team could ever have imagined. Not only was the outcome a much sought after second straight State Championship, the Rams’ final victory played out in a nearly identical, nail-biting fashion against the same opponent they faced in last year’s final.
Rockford’s intense rivalry with Okemos began last year when all but one of their match-ups went into double or sudden death overtime. In the end, Rockford and its roster of all underclassmen beat Okemos by a single point in the 2016 State final.
Just how evenly matched these two rivals would be again this year became evident way back on August 25 when the two teams battled to a 6-6 tie at the Jenison Tournament. Just one week later, the Rams had to come from behind to beat the Chiefs 10-9 in Rockford’s pool. One month later, it was Okemos who came from behind with Rockford scrambling for a goal in the final seconds to secure an 8-7 victory.
After both teams cruised to their respective Regional Championships this year, nobody was surprised to see these rivals enter the State Tournament as the #1 seeds.
Rockford’s first game was against an opponent they had not faced all year, Birmingham Seaholm. The Rams blasted to an 8-0 lead in the first quarter led by 3 goals from junior Kyle Arend and 2 each from seniors Jack & Paul Sikkema. Rockford went to its depth early and dominated defensively to coast to a 15-3 victory. Jacob Newberger, Paul Sikkema, Derek Zahnleuter, and Ryan Baker each stole the ball 4 times and Sean Martella added 2 to the team’s impressive 24 total steals. Cole McAnelly and Josh Corder combined for 13 saves defending the goal.
The Rams’ second game pitted them against Ann Arbor Skyline who was consistently ranked in the top 4 throughout this year’s regular season. In what quickly proved to be a very physical contest, the game was tied 2-2 at the end of the first quarter and Rockford trailed 6-4 at the half. The Rams fought back to tie the game at the end of three periods before ending the game with a 10-8 victory.
Defense of the goal was paramount in this game as both teams took numerous shots. In addition to its 10 goals, Rockford fired another 31 shots at the opponent’s goal. At Rockford’s end of the pool, Cole McAnelly blocked 14 shots taken by Skyline. Jacob Newberger led the Rams’ defense in the field with 10 while Paul Sikkema contributed 6 to the team’s total of 29 steals. Jack Sikkema also added 4 steals and 5 goals.
With the victory over Skyline and Okemos’ similar advancement through their bracket, the stage was set for a repeat of last year’s Championship game.
Like last year, Rockford won the first sprint. Despite stealing the ball 6 times and taking 8 shots at the Okemos goal, the Rams led just 1-0 at the end of the first quarter. Rockford won the sprint again to start the second period but Okemos fought back to end the half with a 3-2 lead over the Rams. The Chiefs were doing a good job of controlling Rockford’s diverse scoring ability.
Okemos then seized upon 6 turnovers by the Rams in the third period to maintain a 5-4 lead over Rockford. It was clear that Okemos now sensed an opportunity to seize upon the physical demands Rockford had endured in its previous game against Skyline.
In the fourth period, the Chiefs extended their lead to two points on more than one occasion and, although Rockford fought to stay within one, Okemos scored to go ahead 9-7 with just 44 seconds remaining in the game.
The fans were all on their feet screaming, Okemos hoping for a long sought upset and Rockford hoping for a miracle come back. Given the history between these two rivals, everyone knew anything could happen.
Head Coach Jon Haga described what happened next “We had to execute, something we had not done consistently all weekend. We had a quick scoring play that we had been working on. The guys executed it perfectly, enabling Gavin McIntyre to score”.
With the score narrowed to 9-8 and just 37 seconds left, Okemos spread their offense. Haga explained the Rams’ strategy “We had Jack Sikkema attack the ball and then go to offense, risking that Okemos might score. The guys have been working on moving the ball down the pool quickly since middle school. When the Okemos clock shot expired with 6 seconds remaining, we executed our plan perfectly to get the ball to Jack for the goal, tying the game and sending it to OT.”
Coach Haga recalled the team’s fiery resolve at that moment, “When we huddled to prepare for overtime, I could see it in their eyes, they weren’t leaving without a State Championship.”
Sikkema and Newberger both scored goals in the first three-minute overtime period to keep the game tied at 11-11. The second OT period remained equally intense as the score edged forward to 12-12. With very little time left, a goal by McIntyre gave Rockford the lead 13-12. The Rams were able to quickly regain and retain possession of the ball until just 3 seconds remained. When a final desperate shot by Okemos narrowly missed the goal, Rockford’s mission to repeat was complete!
Over the six periods of play in this game, Jack Sikkema had 5 steals, 3 assists and 2 goals. Gavin McIntyre led scorers with 3 goals. Jacob Newberger led the defense with 6 steals. Junior Kyle Arend had 3 assists and juniors Zach Burns and Gavin Saur each added a goal for Rockford.
In addition to the Rams receiving their 13th State Championship trophy in the past 18 years, Jack Sikkema was named to the State Championship All Tournament First Team. Paul Sikkema and Jacob Newberger were named to the All Tournament Second Team.
Rockford players were also recognized for their play throughout the entire season. Jack and Paul Sikkema were both named First Team All-State Season. Jacob Newberger was named Second Team All-State Season.
“We won this title because we never gave up”, observed Coach Haga, “we believed in each other, we trusted each other, and we focused on executing fundamentals at the most crucial of times.”
Rockford ends the season with an impressive 49-1 record with the team’s only loss being by one point to a visiting team from Connecticut. The future remains bright for the Rams despite 13 soon-to-be graduates. Coach Haga is optimistic “We have a strong group of juniors coming up next year, both as athletes and as leaders. Combine that with our undefeated JV team. Why not go for three?”
This year’s rivalry and history-making final game have made one thing very clear: Rock Polo must remain “Ready to Repeat!” in every way!