For the Grand Haven boys water polo team, this introspection found a decimated starting lineup, a core of experienced, young players and a fourth-place finish at the 2015 state tournament.
For coach Bill Hamm, this general lack of experience and a successful run in 2015 added up to two things — fundamentals and repeating last year’s stellar finish.
“We’re going back to teaching the fundamentals right now,” Hamm said in an early season interview. “We’ve got a core of six or seven guys that have experience with Junior Olympic Water Polo, so they have some experience. Then, we have some freshmen that have advanced quickly as well, but they need all the experience they can get. We also have some upperclassmen that are relatively new to the sport. We have three seniors who only have one year of experience.”
The Bucs finished 23-14, advancing through the district and regional tournaments, finishing runner-up at the latter and their postseason play earned them a spot in the state championship tournament. Despite all this success, coach Hamm’s tune rings unchanged. Some would say that fundamentals are a crutch for the talentless—Hamm disagrees.
“Fundamentals are something you have to work on all the time,” Hamm said this week. “We still have to work on them. We are still young, we are starting a lot of juniors, sometimes one sophomore, so this is a learning experience this year, and we are hoping it learns how to win a championship.”
“It was definitely the plan,” Hamm said of the state tournament berth. “We made sure we were going to be there. The trick now is achieving our original goal which was to be in the better half of the state tournament.”
Matching the finish of an entirely more experienced team would seem like a hard sell, but Hamm has found himself just the right team to give it a shot. Returning All-State honoree Mason Fritz and first-year varsity goalie Matt Beals have no problem buying in.
“I want to beat last year’s state team and get fourth,” Beals said.
“The goal is fourth. I would love to get third or higher, third is the best finish we have ever had at state,” Fritz said.
Both players are among the group who spent the summer training with divisions of the Junior Olympic water polo training program. Fritz travelled west to take on fierce competition in the sun, while Beals stayed local. The two were able to translate their offseason work to victories right away. The Bucs were soon recognized as one of the better teams in the state, despite their youth. Mid-season, they cracked the top 10 rankings, sitting as high as eighth.
“I was always aware,” Hamm said of the ranking. “I didn’t tell the boys. They were always aware because they knew where to find it. They were pleased by it, but I don’t think they accepted it. They, and I, think they are a better team than that.”
Now, only two wins separate them from the schools highest state tournament finish ever, one on Friday and one on Saturday. The boys credit their success to more than just crisp passing.
“I think its just getting the connection,” Fritz explained. “Knowing where people are, a lot of the starters have been playing together since middle school. We kind of have a feeling of where we are and where we need to be. It gives us a sense of playing as a team rather than individuals.”
Fritz (white right) shows off the team's awareness, making a precise pass to teammate Eli VandenBrand (white left) after drawing three defenders off goal. (Tribune file photo/ Duncan MacLean)
“It’s been a lot about stepping up and encouraging others to step up as well,” Beals added. “Not just bringing yourself up to that level but bringing the rest of the team up so we can compete with the rest of the teams around the state.
“A lot of us have been playing (together) since back in the sixth grade, we’re all friends outside of the pool as well as in. It adds a lot to it.”
Even coach Hamm will admit that this group shares a special bond.
“They enjoy each other’s company,” he said. “They play together, they play in the games and the play in practice and that makes the whole thing fun. They are just a good group of kids. They want to come to practice.”
The Bucs will look to convert that chemistry into a first round victory over Ann Arbor Huron at Hudsonville High School at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
“We played them earlier this year before we had any of our starters,” Hamm said of the matchup, the Bucs lost 17-6. “They are fast and they run plays, have pretty good goalie, and their defense is something we should be able to deal with. I remember a couple good shooters. They are quick. They are tough, but they aren’t big, so we will be ok.
“Our team defense and precision passing and shooting (are key).
“If we put 26 shots on the goal we will score 13 and win.”
Hamm’s players are just trying not to blink.
“Everyone is managing to keep it relaxed and keep it cool. Doing that helps us focus more. If we start stressing about it we start missing shots and our passes aren’t as good,” Fritz said of the first-round game.
“I think everyone is focused but at the same time we are holding back and letting it go,” Beals added. “Not getting super nervous or stressed about the game just focusing on what we need to do keeping those passes crisp and have good shots.”
Should Grand Haven win their first game they likely will meet the East region 1-seed, Okemos, in the state semifinal. That game will send them either into the final or to the third/fourth place consolation game.
Whether it is basic ball-handling skills, chemistry, or they just fundamentally enjoy each other’s company, this Grand Haven water polo team has found a recipe for success, and the bread is rising just at the right time.