At Hillsboro High School, the water polo program is something of a David-versus-Goliath story.
"We don't have club kids, so we know the perennial powers like Newberg are going to beat us pretty good — but there's teams we've beaten pretty good, too," said Larry Dickinson, the Spartans' head coach. "We build the team through the fun experience we try to provide, and through the friendships you can make doing something that's a just a good time."
The Spartans had a big couple of days this past week, earning third-place trophies on both the girls and boys side at the 5A state water polo championships Nov. 12-13 at the Osborn Aquatic Center in Corvallis. But while third has never been anything to shake a stick at, it's an even more impressive feat for a program and school operating without the club experience with which most competitive teams are blessed.
The Hillsboro boys team lost to West Albany 13-4 in the state semifinal, but they bounced back to defeat Ashland 23-11 to secure third place.
Spencer Dickinson and his cousin Dallin Dickinson led the Sparts with six goals apiece, while Alex Godsey added five and goalie Connor Glasser tallied 11 saves.
The finish was the highest ever for the boys program, which has been around for 16 years now. Dickinson said they've been aiming toward a competitive 2021 fall season for two years, knowing their kids would be bigger, faster and stronger.
"The boys have been working hard to meet their goal of making it to the final four and have an opportunity to play in big games," Dickinson said. "It's very remarkable for a team without club players to pull off such a feat. We built for this year knowing this team would have a high-powered offense and defense, but we didn't know it would be this special."
Planning ahead and executing strategy come naturally to Dickinson, who also coaches a chess team in the Hillsboro School District. While he engineered the rise of the Spartans in boys water polo, the girls water polo team's success was less expected — and eye-opening.
The Spartan girls dropped their semifinal to Hood River Valley 13-7, but they followed that with a narrow 7-6 win over West Albany for third place, sparked by Celia Pilversack's three goals and Abby Ness' 16 saves.
"The girls surprised everyone by peaking at just the right time and playingÂ their season best game to win third place at the state tournament," girls coach Cam Clitheroe said. "Junior goalie Abby Ness was the star of the game, with 22 blocked shots to secure the victory, but it was the strong play by our freshmanÂ Kori Foster and Charlie Smith that was most inspiring and unexpected.Â Of course, it helped to have the experienced play of juniors Julia Kociemba and Celia Pilversack to lead our scoring and senior Jordyn Long to anchor our defense."
Much of both teams' potency comes from the chemistry built over time. Dickinson said water polo athletes did non-contact drills and worked out on the football field during Oregon's COVID-19 restrictions, when they weren't able to get into a pool. He added that a number of programs either shut down or were forced to merge with neighboring schools due to attrition from the COVID-19 shutdown, but Hillsboro's program continued to work, bond and improve with this exact goal in mind.
"COVID just killed teams," Dickinson said. "People didn't know how to recruit, but we stayed close together and got kids to join because we have a fun group of people. We had to follow so many rules, but we found ways to make it fun."
Dickinson's son Spencer recalls spending cold days outside working out and playing ultimate frisbee on the football field last winter. He said that while they've grown together over the past few years, even new kids are quickly integrated into what has become a form of family.
"Some of us vaguely knew one another before the team, but most of us weren't that close," Spencer Dickinson said. "Yet, I feel like we're all pretty welcoming, and even when new kids would show up, we might know who they are a little bit, but in just a month or so, they'll fit right in."
And that's helped them all improve.
"Before, we'd have a couple stars ,but that was all we could really do," Spencer Dickinson said. "My sophomore year and this year, we've been very cohesive with each other, and I think that's the thing that has helped us the most. We can trust each other."
That would put a smile on any coach's face, but especially Larry Dickinson, who passionately believes in the value of the good times they're having.
"Cam and I have been coaching this team for 15 or 16 years, with me taking over head coaching duties this year, and you get the big picture after a while," Coach Dickinson said. "When you see any of these kids 10 years from now, nobody will remember the scores of the games. It's the friendships and the relationships you build. I just want to make sure these kids have a great experience."
For many of Hillsboro's athletes, this past weekend's third-place finishes were their last games in the pool. The water polo season is over for the 2021-22 school year.
But they've had a lot of fun along the way — and so has their head coach.
"I'm very sad to see these seniors move on," Larry Dickinson said, "but I'm very excited about their futures."
Spartans All-Tournament Team selections:
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.