by Sam Stites
The 2018 Oregon High School Water Polo Committee Championship Tournament culminated this past weekend with four teams taking home top honors after hard fought battles in both 5A and 6A classifications.
In Boys 6A competition it was the Newberg Tigers earning their fifth straight state title in a repeat from 2017's championship matchup against the Lakeridge High School Pacers.
"These guys have played a long time together, especially the seniors," said Head Coach Jim McMaster. "It was a great win, and I know that Lakeridge was a difficult opponent. We knew that going in, so we just played hard and played great defense."
According to McMaster, the difference was made in Tigers' physical conditioning and fourth quarter preparedness. Strong performances by senior goalie Wilson Johnson, as well as juniors Nathan Waldal and Alex Touzeau elevated Newberg to their win over Lakeridge in a game that was tied 3-3 at halftime. "(Johnson) was MVP of the tournament, and that's well deserved. He can stop pretty much anything, and a lot of the defense had a lot to do with him and last ditch effort. He also led the counter attack with great passing," McMaster said. "Our seniors are Zach Jordan, Grant Stilp, Dane Findley and Raleigh Day. They're all solid guys who have played at least the last seven years with us. In reality, the other team concentrated on them and they forgot about guys like Nathan Waldal who scored three goals." For McMaster's program, winning five in a row is a huge accomplishment. He's hopeful to see the level of play increase across the board, especially with great coaches like Lakeridge's Morgan Rauch -- a Newberg alumna -- taking the helm at programs throughout Oregon.
"It's great to see (these coaches) give back to the sport, but it's hard for me because it makes me feel so old," McMaster laughed.
In 6A girls competition the Bruins of Sam Barlow edging out the Lincoln Cardinal 11-7.
Third-year head coach Mike Riegelmann believes this win is a classic case of all the right pieces coming together at the right time.
"Emma Stroebel (6 blocks) was selected as 1st team all-tournament goalie and had block after block for us. It starts there and we just had a lot of weapons," Riegelmann said. "Thankfully we have a really good freshman 2-meter player in Amaya Leiby. She did absolutely incredible, as well as senior Rochelle Beavers (4 goals) who is a threat so teams have to double her often."
As important as Barlow's offense was, the defense of senior 2-meter defender Jenna Jette was a huge boon to the Bruins' success both in league play and throughout the tournament. The Bruins held just a one point lead going into halftime but came out strong with four goals in the third quarter to take a 9-6 lead going into the fourth. The bruins remained poised and scored a few more two more late in the fourth to secure the game with strong finishes by players like freshman Allison Corbett coming off the bench to contribute to the big win last Saturday with four goals of her own.
"We had a lot of fire power, a lot of people scored," Riegelmann said. "This win means so much. I've been a bruin since 1996. For the program, essentially the lid has been taken off. We can go back and say look at what we did to win, look at the horsepower we had, and now we can replicate that success." A matchup between Hood River Valley Eagles and West Albany Bulldogs highlighted the 5A girls championship, but the Bulldogs spoiled what would have been a three-peat by Hood River in a match that ended 13-9.
The Eagles came out of the gate hot scoring four goals in the first quarter with a strong start by junior Faith Ochesky. Early exclusions against Eagles forced them to play a bit more conservative heading into the second half down 6-4 after a strong second quarter by the Bulldogs in which they scored five goals led by seniors Kylee Crofcheck and Sabrina Grato.
The Bulldogs kept their composure and scored another six goals in the third to put the game out of reach, despite three late goals by the Eagles in an attempt to get back in the game.
"We talked a lot about playing as a team. I had a couple players vying for MVP and there's always that battle for who's best, and they didn't go through that," said Head Coach Rob Romancier. "They were very supportive of each other and that was nice."
Two five-meter penalty blocks by the Bulldog's goalie Erica Rietmann earned her all-tournament honors, and two goals and a strong defensive performance by Bailey Dickerson saw her named MVP in the girls' 5A division.
"For Kylee Crofcheck and Bailey Dickerson to be up there on first team, and for Bailey to win MVP was pretty impressive," Romancier said. "The key to that win was they didn't panic, and they believed in each other."
Romancier and fellow Bulldog's coach Rob Nelke were vying for a state title in the 5A Boys division as well where they battled against the Parkrose Broncos in what is becoming a classic matchup of two powerhouse programs in this division.
It was the Broncos who came out on top with a result of 12-4 off the back of senior center forward Kelton McElhaney with six goals.
"I think the biggest key to the win was teamwork on offense and defense. Obviously Kadin LeBreton came up huge for us in the cage," said head coach Gary Muzzy. "We pride ourselves on our defense, the guys bought into the mindset that good defense leads to easy opportunities on the other end and that's what our defense helps create."
Spacing and pool awareness on offense combined with an arsenal of weapons in McElhaney, seniors Zach Tudor and Ben McKee allowed Parkrose to execute their strategy and control the game from the start.
"I think spacing is huge. Kelton scored six goals for us out of that 2-meter area. He got the goals, but it was because of our spacing and ball movement to get him those quality passes," Muzzy said. This was the third trip to the championship game for the Parkrose boys team since Muzzy took over the program in 2007. The long-awaited state title, he says, is a testament to the perseverance of his team this year and the hard work they've put in throughout the season.
"The boys first championship is huge," Muzzy said. "We've been in that game before and come in second so many times, so it felt good to get that monkey off our back and finish the game."
In attendance Saturday was Olympian and USA Water Polo representative Genai Kerr who handed out awards and all-tournament honors. Kerr has become increasingly involved in the development of the sport here in Oregon as more club programs and teams begin to emerge for young players to become exposed to the game at earlier ages.
"The very first thing that comes to my mind, if I say one word, it's excitement," Kerr said. "It's nice to see that level of excitement at all the different division of the game. Even though it's high school water polo they're playing like it's the Olympics."
That drive and competition, Kerr says, is at the heart of this game and he's encouraged to see so many players and coaches working hard to achieve their goals in high school competition. He jokes that his motto is, "I've never lost a game, I've only ran out of time."
That motto embodies what many coaches and clubs are trying to emulate here in Oregon as the sport continues to grow.
The Wednesday before competition Kerr visited Bobby DeRoest and girls team out at David Douglas where the Scots were preparing for the tournament. The two talked about how the sport can continue to improve in Oregon with more club programs beginning to flourish across the state.
One of those programs Kerr is particularly excited about is Muzzy's program Blue Crush Aquatic Club where last year they began a new Splashball program for 12U and 10U age groups to be introduced to the game thanks to a grant from USA Water Polo.
"Introducing the game to new student athletes at any age is exciting to me because it's not something you come across in the day-to-day activities. Introducing them younger breaks down that unfamiliarity," Kerr said. "Programs like Gary's are what fires me up."
At a high level of competition like the annual state tournament, coaches like Romancier, Riegelmann, Muzzy and McMaster are all in agreement with Kerr's summation that getting kids into the pool earlier helps improve both individual skills and the level of team play in all divisions of the game.
"To truly compete at the level of state, you need to have kids playing more than just 2-3 months to get the skills they need," Romancier said. "They have to be dedicated. Showing them earlier in their lives how to play the game is crucial."
Sam Stites is a journalist with Pamplin Media Group and official with the Oregon Water Polo Officials Association. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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