|Ethan and his team celebrating their win!|
When they took a 6-1 lead into halftime, there was still no indication this wouldn’t be the case…except for the echoes of “Wuuuu” reverberating throughout the Huron High School Natatorium.
The cheers were for Pioneer all-state goalie Daniel Wu, who wouldn’t allow another goal the rest of the way as his team clawed back to make a game of the Michigan Water Polo Association state championship.
Though Wu’s spectacular play helped Pioneer get back in the game, Rockford was able to hang on for the 6-4 win.
“We know every single goal is tough to score against this great goalie,” said Rockford coach David McWatters. “Even though it was 4-0 we knew every goal was precious.”
It’s Rockford’s ninth state title in 11 years. Such success in the program makes every state title seem almost a forgone conclusion to the casual observer, but that’s far from the case.
“Every season there’s a new set of challenges and every season there’s a different sense of satisfaction,” McWatters said. “These kids put in the work. Nothing’s ever guaranteed.”
“We work very hard all season and this is why,” said Rockford captain Jacob Davis. “It’s a ton of work…we try not to let up because we don’t want to lose. We don’t want to get beat.”
Reizo Osawa put Pioneer on the board in the second quarter, but when he motioned to the crowd for them to get into it Pioneer still didn’t look like it could keep up with Rockford. But even down 6-1 at half, Pioneer coach Will Hart said he and his players had faith.
“We always felt like we were in it because we were creating opportunities we just couldn’t convert on the man advantage,” Hart said.
It helped to have Wu, who came up with 21 saves, including 8 in the fourth quarter as Pioneer mounted its comeback.
“I don’t think anybody who watched water polo today was in doubt that the best player in the state was playing for our team in goal,” Hart said of Wu, who was named tournament MVP. “Anybody watching this game had to be amazed with two minutes left when he made five consecutive saves when they were a man up.”
Though Wu could stop more goals from going in, Rockford kept getting the rebounds and the seconds kept ticking off the clock. Pioneer missed on its final shot and Rockford was able to wait out the final seconds.
Hart knew it wasn’t the final shot, but the missed opportunities in the first half that doomed his team.
“If we had been able to capitalize on even half of them we win this game. That’s the difference between the state champion and us. We didn’t convert on our opportunities,” Hart said.
Stephan Cress and Brent Trewhella led Rockford with two goals apiece and Osaw led Pioneer with two goals.
Pioneer beat Jenison 10-6 in the semifinal round and Rockford beat Huron 8-6. Huron beat Jenison in the third place match. Hudsonville finished fifth, Birmingham Seaholm sixth, Skyline seventh and Holland West Ottawa eighth.
Pete Cunningham covers sports for The Ann Arbor News. Follow him on Twitter @petcunningham.