The Okemos boys water polo team is doing things the program has never accomplished before.
The Chiefs recently held the No. 1 spot in the state rankings for a week before a loss to perennial power Rockford moved them down to No. 2. Still, Okemos has the look of a team that can contend for a state championship.
“I see the characteristics of a championship team,” said head coach Eric Chisholm, who played at Michigan State and at Rockford in high school. “They have a willingness to listen, they’re coachable, they ask questions, they’re very driven in practice, and always want to learn more about water polo to get a leg up.”
Okemos has never won a state championship in boy’s water polo, and is coming off a seventh-place finish last season. Chisholm is impressed with the work his players put in, and the Chiefs appear to have the intangibles for a deeper run this season..
“The thing that has brought us this far, is that we’ve all played together for at least three years because we’ve been on the same club teams,” said Andrew Himebaugh, senior leader and former State Journal water polo player of the year. “We know each other like the back of our hands. We’re all each other’s closest friends, like a big family.”
This tight bond translates into the games according to junior Ewan Woolcock. They know one another’s style.
“We have a great team chemistry,” said Woolcock. “We know one another and what were going to do in the pool just from playing with each other for so long. We can react to their (a teammates) thinking before they actually do it.”
The Chiefs believe they’re helped by the guidance of the youthful Chisholm, who is a fifth-year senior at MSU and is just a few years removed from playing in high school himself.
“He (Chisholm) won several state championships at Rockford, so he knows what it means to be a good team and how to win games,” Woolcock said. “Despite his youth, he has coaching experience and he’s really good at bringing us together as team because he can connect with us more as a younger guy.”
Chisholm believe his ability to relate to his athletes gives him an edge over some other coaches.
“I’m fresh out of there,” Chisholm said jokingly. “I’ve only been removed from high school for a few years and that makes me more relevant than someone who played 20 years ago. I think that makes the kid respect and value what I say more.
“I was a pretty good player at the high school level so I know what works and what you can get away with and how the game is,” the construction management major said.
With the Chiefs’ increased success comes added pressure. They are aware that teams are pointing at them due to their standing near the top of the polls.
“Being up there in the top spots you feel you have a target painted on your back,” Himebaugh said. “Everybody’s main goal is to beat you and take your spot. We’ve handled the pressure well and haven’t underestimated any teams.”
Now the Chiefs will try to avoid playing down to the competition as they try to reach their peak heading toward the postseason.
“You have to come in every game with the mentality that you’re playing one of the best teams in the state,” Woolcock said.