The day began with Dexter defeating Huron 13-5 and Pioneer beating Skyline 12-5 sending Huron and Skyline to the bronze-medal game. The city rivals battled. Skyline prevailed, narrowly winning 9-8. Next up was the gold medal game between the top two seeds: Dexter and Pioneer.
The defending champion Dexter Dreadnaughts were favored to win. They suffered an early-season loss to Pioneer but had won the next two games by a wide margin. With the combination of strong field players and one of the best goalies in the state, Tony Golin, it looked like Dexter would repeat as District champions.
The game began with a fast start. Junior Alex Farmer won the opening sprint, leading to a Pioneer goal by Gabriel Burks – a mere 11 seconds into the game. The next goal was an example of well-timed teamwork: senior captain Jack Shemke threw the ball to Farmer who deflected it midair past Golin and into the goal. 2-0 Pioneer.
Dexter responded with goals by Clayton Kinnard and Tristan Lorincz. At the end of the first quarter, the teams were tied 2-2. Pioneer senior captain Cam Williston was sidelined, recovering from surgery for a broken nose. Therefore, the sprinter position he usually shared with Farmer was deftly filled by sophomore Burks who won the second sprint.
Pioneer pulled ahead when Shemke scored two back-to-back goals. At halftime, Pioneer led 4-2. After Farmer was first to the ball on the sprint, the third quarter stayed close as Dexter’s Leo Varitek and Pioneer junior Zach Edwards each scored one goal: Pioneer 5, Dexter 3.
The excitement was palpable at the start of the final quarter. Burks won the fourth sprint and scored his second goal. Next, three goals in quick succession: Dexter’s Kinnard, Pioneer’s Shemke, and Dexter’s Sam Sterlitz made the score 7-5. Farmer increased the lead to 8-5. With only seconds left in the game, Dexter’s Ben Duncan scored the last goal making the final score 8-6.
Pioneer toppled the 2019 champions to take the Water Polo District title.
A large part of Pioneer’s success was due to the defensive moves by the third senior captain Liam Herbert, junior Luke Packard, and goalie Matthieu Ruelle. Herbert, who is typically a forward, moved into a defensive role keeping the number of shots on goal to a minimum. Packard played the hole set position and shut down Dexter’s number one scorer, Sam Sterlitz, for most of the game.Ruelle contributed to the win by registering eight saves.
The Pioneer coaching staff, led by Head Coach Don Packard, also deserves much of the credit for quickly transforming a group of fast swimmers into adept polo players.
The District Championship determines the seeding for the East Regional Tournament. Pioneer claims the top seed, Dexter 2nd, Skyline 3rd, and Huron 4th. The Regional quarterfinals will be held on Wednesday, May 19. Pioneer hosts Skyline vs. Grand Blanc and Pioneer vs. Seaholm. While Birmingham Groves hosts Dexter vs. Lake Orion and Huron vs. Groves. The winners advance to the Regional semifinals on Friday, May 21 hosted by Seaholm.
Team photo courtesy of the Murphy family. Individual photos by Staci Almeida