By Bethany Williston / For WLAA
The Boys’ Water Polo State Championships took place at Hudsonville High School and East Kentwood High School on June 11 – 12. It was east region versus west region; the four top teams from the east — Dexter, Pioneer, Birmingham Groves, and Skyline against the four top teams from the west — Hudsonville, Grandhaven, Rockford, and Zeeland.
The first game of the tournament had the biggest impact on the final standings- the four winners would rank in the top four in the state while the losers would finish between fifth and eighth.
Pioneer High School entered as the 2nd ranked team from the east region playing the 3rd ranked team from the west region, Rockford. They had only met once, early in the season, when Rockford won 12-9. The game started as Pioneer prefers: scoring the first goal. Jack Shemke passed the ball to Cam Williston who lobbed it to Alex Farmer who scored: 1-0.
The next goal was scored by Gabriel Burks with another assist from Williston. The third goal of the first quarter was Jack Shemke to Alex Farmer. Rockford rallied and scored a goal. End of the first quarter was Pioneer 3, Rockford 1.
In the second quarter, Rockford scored two goals tying the score at 3 all. However, a last minute goal passed from Luke Packard to Burks meant the Pioneers led at the half: 4-3.
Throughout the game, decisions by the referees seemed to always land on the side of the Rockford team. Frustrated, but determined to finish in the top four, the Pioneers kept their mouths shut and played the best game they could play.
Liam Herbert shot the ball falling just short of the goal. Reacting quickly, Burks pushed the ball past the Rockford goaltender and scored the 5th goal. Soon after, Rockford replied with a goal of their own.
Within seconds of the fourth quarter, Rockford tied the game 5 all. Packard sent the ball to Burks who scored and pulled Pioneer into the lead. Not long after the Rockford team tied it up again, 6-6. For the final two minutes the defense for both teams shut down all advances. The regulation time ended.
In water polo, the first tie breaker is two 3-minute periods. If the teams are still tied, there are 5-minute sudden-death overtimes.
The Pioneers’ most recent game ended with a loss to Dexter in the Regionals final when Dexter scored in the second sudden-death overtime. The team did not want to repeat history.
The teams battled, trying to forget how tired they were from the intensity of the game. Both teams missed a number of opportunities and both goalies saved goals. Finally, with only 8 seconds remaining in the first 3-minute overtime, Shemke scored a definitive goal. Rockford responded with a shot that Pioneer goalie Matthieu Ruelle saved.
The next 3-minute overtime started with Williston, wearing a nose-protecting face mask, winning his fifth of six sprints. Packard, having been ejected from the game with three exclusions, joined the rest of the Pioneer state team members cheering from the sidelines.
Spectators in the stands cheered along with the teams, alternating between “let’s go” and “defense” as possession of the ball switched back and forth. The teams’ speed slowed as fatigue set in.
The Pioneer team continued working to prevent Rockford from scoring, and pushing the game into another overtime. As the clock counted down, the cheering increased. When the buzzer sounded. The Pioneers celebrated their 7-6 win!
They had held off Rockford and were now on the winning side of the bracket. Next up, defending State Champions and host team, Hudsonville.