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Grand Haven’s Fritz put water polo first six years ago, ushering in a new era of aspirations

Duncan MacLean • Oct 12, 2017 at 6:15 AM

Dedication is an irreplaceable trait in an aspiring athlete. The desire to go the extra mile, study film longer, lift heavier weights and take on the toughest competition is what separates champions from dreamers.

Special teams are born when one athlete can infect a program with dedication and share that desire to dominate with his friends and enable them to challenge each other.

Mason Fritz has been enamored with the game of water polo since he was introduced to the sport. After watching his brother, Preston, hit the water, Mason was hooked. In the sixth grade, Fritz took to the pool not to go out for the swim team, but to pursue a career in water polo, dedicating himself to the sport he loved from the minute he started with the Grand Haven sixth-grade team.

“I had really only ever played basketball and soccer,” Fritz said of his youth sports experience. “I liked being outdoors and stuff, but I liked playing video games, too. I played basketball and soccer for a long time, but basketball wasn’t really my thing.

“I can’t remember the first time I saw water polo, I just kind of grew up watching my brother play. I started in sixth grade as soon as I could, and as soon as I started, it spoke to me.

“It is such a unique game in the way that you have to be so smart to play it, but can be so stupidly physical if you need to be. It is such a great mesh of the two. If you have a super strong player and a super smart player, either can win. There are so many different aspects of the game to work on. I just love it so much. When I started playing, it just kind of clicked.

“I think I scored a goal in my first game, and I was so happy. I just remember a bunch of people, everyone was swimming randomly and splashing and didn’t even know where the ball was. I remember seeing it and picking it up and just throwing it as hard as I could. I couldn’t even see the goal.”

The connection was instant, and natural talent came soon after. Within a year of his first game, water polo was Mason’s sport — for the long hall. He dropped basketball and soccer to focus on his budding polo career.

That decision would change Mason’s life, and the Grand Haven water polo program for good. Over the following years, Mason would join the ranks of the Spartan and Rockford Junior Olympic programs, traveling to California to hone his craft against the nation’s best young stars. He would convince his friends to come with for the experience, kick starting a surge in Lakeshore polo talent.

From there, Fritz evolved further, breaking into the Olympic Development Program and spending two summers living in San Diego and playing for their water polo club, all the while returning each fall to compete in Michigan, pushing Grand Haven into the ranks of the top programs in the state.

At the end of his junior season, Fritz watched his summer teammates from the Lansing based Spartan and Rockford Junior Olympic teams battle for Michigan supremacy, as Okemos fell to Rockford in the state title game to give the Rams their fifth title in seven years, and 12th overall. The Bucs had just fallen in the consolation bracket final, handing them a sixth-place finish. The bitter conclusion forced reflection on his career in the pool, his dedication to the game, and their goals for the next season. The conclusion was state championship or bust — there was no other option.

Fritz’s journey to the state title game began with his first goal, motivating dedication to the game he instantly loved. His sixth-grade year served as an appetizer to the illustrious career to follow.

“In sixth grade, I wasn’t anything special,” Fritz said. “In seventh grade, I had gone through a little bit of a growth spurt and started scoring a bunch of goals. I joined the swim team that year, mostly to get faster. I remember my seventh-grade polo coach telling us to do a 200 swim, and thinking, ‘oh my gosh, that is so far’. I was having trouble keeping up, so that was the motivation to stay in the pool.”

In a swim-crazed community like West Michigan, swimming to supplement a polo career is nearly unheard of. With some of the premiere swimming club teams in the region right here on the Lakeshore, Fritz was an anomaly from the get-go.

The swim training paid off, and Fritz broke through as an impressive young talent, prompting attention and action from the top of Grand Haven’s program.

“That year, I realized I was competitive and there were some other kids on my team who were, too — Grant Ruster and Brigham Thornock,” Fritz said. “The varsity coach at the time, coach Bossmeyer, who was coaching my brother, told us about the Spartan team, the only U-14 team in the state.”

The three young prodigies began their journey together. On the wheels of their dedicated parents, they began carpooling to East Lansing to play with the U-14 team. That summer after Mason’s seventh-grade year, they made their first trip to the Golden Coast.

“The Spartan team was nice. They were good players, and I felt like we were all pretty equal in our skills. I learned a lot with them, and am still friends with them today. I know most of the Okemos team now because of it,” Fritz said. “When we got to California, it was whole new level out there.”

The group returned with a new respect for the game, and an invigorated desire to improve and represent the Midwest well on their inevitable return trip.

An eighth-grade campaign back at Grand Haven brought more young stars onboard. As numbers grew, skill became infectious. Fritz, Ruster, Thornock and their crew dominated the middle school circuit. Meanwhile, the varsity squad was experiencing a resurgence, as the first wave of Junior Olympic products took over the squad.

CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’

That spring, Fritz was dealt another game-changing opportunity; pressure to try out for the Midwest Olympic Development team from his Spartan coach. As expected, he made the team, earning the opportunity to travel to Texas for the Eastern United States national championship. Even at that level, the West Coast didn’t bother coming to town.

From the national championship pool, Fritz was one of 70 young players selected for the Olympic Development Program, just one step away from Team USA and international tournaments. A spring trip to California pitted him against the best players in the country, and the stage finally got to the Lakeshore prodigy.

“I went out there and was just a little psyched out,” Fritz said. “I didn’t play as well as I could have. I only had two years of experience, playing against the best kids from California.”

Despite falling short of Team USA, Fritz’s skill attracted local attention. Legendary Rockford coach Dave McWatters targeted Fritz as a recruit for their newly founded Rockford U-16 Junior Olympic program. That summer, he continued his tour of the country, bringing more Grand Haven players along to train at Rockford and visit California.

“They started the Rockford team after eighth grade, so I got six or seven other Grand Haven kids to go out to Rockford,” Fritz said. “It was a tough decision because I had so much fun with the Spartan guys, but it was an hour closer. That drive to Lansing was rough, especially for the parents.”

A second trip to California, this time with many of his own classmates, and eventual varsity adversaries, further developed the local polo community. The team performed well for a Midwest squad, but still struggled to matchup with the golden boys.

After a whirlwind middle school career, Fritz finally hit the high school program, unsurprisingly making the varsity roster in his freshman season. Suddenly, the young star was playing with his mentors.

“It was intimidating. A lot of the guys had coached me in middle school,” Fritz said. “It was crazy to get to high school and suddenly be their teammates. Logan Snider, I remember in a scrimmage once when I was in sixth grade and he was in eighth, he turned me so good, I had never seen it before and was just so confused and immediately wanted to try doing it. Getting to play alongside of him was a lot of fun.”

Fritz’s freshman campaign went smoothly, primarily functioning as an early sub to a talented starting lineup. Another spring with the Midwest ODP team and summer with Rockford continued to grow his skill for what would be his arrival season sophomore year, under first-year head coach Bill Hamm.

“Most of the kids I inherited as seniors, in Mason’s sophomore year, had been starting for three or four years. There wasn’t much depth to the program,” Hamm said. “Mason’s class came in with 22 kids as freshmen, that was the time the whole program changed. It was all the kids from the neighborhood and middle school programs that had been having fun with the sport and stuck with it. There was a bubble that has continued since.

“It was obvious right away that Mason had a different physical stature than all but three players on our team. It was odd to see a sophomore compared to the seniors who had been weight lifting for a number of years. Then, we found that mentally and defensively he was really strong, too.

“He had a different attitude toward the game. They all loved the game, but Mason understood how to play the game. How to move with and without the ball and how to contain and manhandle a defender and how to control them. We only had two seniors at the time playing at a higher level than Mason. So, he fit quite easily into our starting six that year and was noticeable in every game.”

Fritz finished the year as the Bucs’ leading scorer with 74 goals on the season, while finishing second in assists and steals, behind only his former coach, Snider. At the end of the season, he was ready to push himself further. With no rising seniors above him, Fritz knew his junior campaign would be an important one.

That summer, he made a radical change. Rather than train with the defending state champion Rockford team and his equally productive teammates, Fritz busted out for an extended stay on the coast.

After a stint with the Midwest ODP club and a return trip to the National Team Select Camp, he stayed an extra week in California to try out for the San Diego Shores club team, earning a spot on their “A” squad.

The distinction transplanted Mason and his mother to San Diego for a two and a half month stay, as they rented an apartment and soaked up the sun.

The team placed seventh in the Junior Olympic tournament, the same that Mason’s Grand Haven teammates competed in with their newly formed Third Coast Aquatics.

“It was a hard decision to leave my teammates, but they stayed and formed a new team with guys from West Ottawa and Grand Haven,” Fritz explained. “It was crazy to take seventh after finishing 40th or 50th with the Michigan teams. My style of play changed a lot. I think I got faster and smarter. My coach was ruthless. If you weren’t doing what you were supposed to, you were out. He yelled a lot.”

Mason returned ready to lead his team like he never had before, playing at a level rarely seen in Michigan.

“In the first year I had Mason, he was a team player. He played team offense, team defense, team everything,” Hamm said. “He came back from San Diego with the mindset that no individual was good enough to put anything by him. He lived it. No individual has schooled Mason since. Some have played eye-to-eye, but no one has said ‘I got him’. He just doesn’t stand for it. He scored a goal recently against Grandville, and gave himself the assist. Other guys just aren’t at that level.”

Back on top with his friends at his side, all with their own incredible offseason experience, the Bucs took on the 2016 season with nothing to lose.

“I was excited,” Fritz said. “There weren’t any seniors on varsity, so it was like throwing it back to eighth grade when we were dominating middle school tournaments. I was back with the guys I started out with. We knew without any seniors we had another year together in charge, so we thought, ‘let’s just do as good as we can so we can have an idea of what we can do next year.’”

The team achieved at a whole new level. After leading the way with 74 goals in his sophomore season, Fritz netted 135 his junior year. Meanwhile, Ruster developed into an otherworldly defender and facilitator, leading the team with 60 assists and 155 steals.

After graduating all but Fritz from their 2015 starting lineup, the team overachieved, breaking through as a contender in championship weekend. At the state tournament, a long, emotional season caught up with them, forcing them to watch from the deck and their club teammates battled for supremacy.

“We wanted to be higher,” Fritz said of the sixth-place finish. “We definitely could have been, but we played some rough games at state.”

A final summer in California with San Diego Shores prepared Fritz for his most determined season yet. The team kicked off his senior year with one goal to play for a state title.

“We are thinking it is now or never. Grand Haven has never won a state title,” Fritz said. “I’ll be proud if we get second, but I won’t be completely happy. This is our best chance so far. After watching my brother in the program and the guys who paved the way before me, I know we can do it.”

WINNING CHEMISTRY 

At the end of the day, the lofty goals are rooted in chemistry.

“We have such a large number of guys who have been playing for so long together, there is so much chemistry when we play,” Fritz said. “I love playing with Grant. After playing Spartan, and through Junior Olympics together for so long, we just know where the other will be. I love the two of us on a counter attack. It is an amazing feeling.

“Everyone has put so much work in, all this time training to be that group that wins the title.”

Before their shot at the championship, the Bucs have to take care of business as the top-seed at the district tournament. Something Fritz is whole-heartedly looking forward too.

“I want to blow everyone out of the water,” he said. “I think we can. We have had some close games with Hudsonville, but if we play our game they are beatable.”

After a hopeful district demolition, the regional tournament brings a premature matchup with the Bucs’ biggest challenge, the rulers of the west, the defending state champions, the best of the best: Rockford.

“If there is a time we really need to get in gear it’s regionals against Rockford,” Fritz said. “If we can beat them and take that No. 1 seed into state, that could be enough to get us to the championship game. If they end up on the other side of the bracket, that helps us a lot.”

With clear-cut goals, and a wealth of training rarely seen across an entire team, the Bucs are ready to take on the postseason. Fritz is ready to take on the entire state on his own. Luckily, he doesn’t have to. 2017 looks like the year the Buccaneers finally wrestle control of the pool, all thanks to a kid who put polo first.

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