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| 5 min. read | by: Seth Kinker, skinker@thesuntimesnews.com |

Last year, the Dexter Dreadnaught water polo team was bounced early in the playoffs. 

A first-round exit courtesy of Grand Haven, who they face tomorrow night in the first round of the Michigan Water Polo Association (MWPA) state championships at East Lansing High School. 

Coming into this season, the Dreads had high expectations. Their roster is comprised of upperclassmen with quality varsity experience and the bar was set high from the start. 

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“They believe they can achieve great things this season,” said Dread head coach Brian Semple, in his 15th year as a head coach, on Sept. 11 after a 15-5 win against Ann Arbor Huron. “Our goal going into the season was a state championship. Right now, several teams in the state are really good, and we’d put ourselves in that group.”

“This year alone we had a lot more people buy in to the idea we can win states,” said senior captain Mitch Sterlitz, who leads the team with 85 goals this year while adding 43 assists. “Last year it was, ‘let’s try to make it to states.’”

That quality experience coming back, coupled with a renewed program commitment this offseason has resulted in the Dreads taking a 39-2 record into tomorrow evening being one of two no. 1 seeds in the MWPA. 

After the loss to Grand Haven last year, the Dreads had everyone in their program commit to putting in the extra work.

Whether it was having almost the whole team join the swim team in the winter to improve conditioning or having most members playing high level club water polo in the offseason, the Dreads knew that they had a good chance to make a run with only losing two seniors from last year. 

Senior captain Luke Sayler, who is third on the team with 54 goals, while adding 72 steals, told The Sun Times it wasn’t something he had seen in his prior years. 

“The offseason work wasn’t there,” said Sayler. “Some guys would swim,  but this past year a lot changed. (Everyone) swam to stay in shape. Pretty much everyone did (club) Wolverine in the offseason. We all put in the extra time to develop as much as we could for this season.”

“It wasn’t really a conversation,” added Sayler when asked what it took to get everyone to buy in and put in the extra work. “Everyone was excited and wanted to put in the work to be the best we could be.”

On Nov. 2, this team made history by winning the first ever regional title for the program with a 11-6 overtime win against Ann Arbor Pioneer.

The Dreads after winning the first regional title in program history.

“It was a cool moment having our parents in the stands cheering,” said Sterlitz. “We’ve beaten that Pioneer team before but that one extra time to put it away felt really good to get that for the program.”

“I was thinking back to my freshman year,” added senior captain Jack Blodgett, who is second on the team with 103 steals while adding 74 assists. “We played at Birmingham Groves in the regional finals and lost to Okemos. It all came full circle, it felt good to capture it, at Birmingham Groves too.”

“It felt amazing,” said Sayler. “I’ve never been a part of a team to do something like that. Being a part of that team, especially my senior year, helping lead that team, it’s great to see.” 

But as Semple and the captains alluded to earlier in the season, their goal remains. 

In 2016, the Dreads finished fifth at states, the same as last year, and that’s been the best finish for the program. 

“If we can win the first-round game it would be a stepping stone for our program to make it into that top four and then have a chance at the semifinal to get to a state championship,” said Semple. 

The Dreads came into this season with renewed conditioning, looking to outswim teams. First, came the dedication to defense, and with that the Dreads knew that good defense could lead to offense. 

Semple knew the talent he had coming back but needed to see how the team chemistry would be with this specific group. That’s been something the players have noted is one of their greatest strengths. 

“We can have fun,” said Sterlitz. “We low when to lock in and start playing well, the best part is we can have fun and play well too. We don’t need to be serious all the time, that’s my favorite part about the team.”

“We all mesh together,” added Blodgett. “We’ve been together for so long, we all like each other, the chemistry is great. Everyone has a role that fits for this team, everyone knows their role. We all fit together. It’s perfect.” 

Defensively, the Dreads are led by junior goalie Tony Golin, who also put in the work this offseason and its shown as he’s amassed 302 saves on the year thus far. 

Tony Golin dives to make a save. Photo by Mike Williamson

“With Tony having the success he’s had at goalie; he went out to California,” said Semple. “Three practices a day, all summer long. He practiced with a high school team, practiced with a goalie coach, then a second practice with a high school team. He did that pretty much from the end of June until he came back before the start of our season. He stayed out and competed with the California team for the Junior Olympics. He put in a ton of time and effort. He was already good and became that much better.”

Sayler has also stepped up into becoming the pole side defender this year, something that one of the seniors last year did. Sayler credited that senior, Drew Golin, and assistant coach Adam Theros for helping him develop into a lead Dread defender. 

“Luke Sayler is our primary 2-meter defender, which means he’ll guard the other team’s best player who will come in and try and post up,” said Semple. “Being able to have a strong defender who can guard another team’s best player 1 on1 allows your defenders to press out and play a hard man press, it’s been a huge benefit to us. It’s allowed us flexibility to apply pressure, other teams have shown they don’t have experience and when you can apply pressure to teams with less experience, that creates turnovers and goals.” 

Luke Sayler goes for a shot. Photo by Mike Williamson

Semple said one of the main things he’s enjoyed about this team is their selflessness. 

“(We’re) not trying to do everything through one person,” said Semple. “Trying to function as a team whether on offense or defense. You see it with our stats and everything else, lots of goals and steals from a lot of different people. It’s been fun.” 

“I’ve made so many friends through this sport,” said Sayler. “Whether it’s here in Dexter or with club teams I’ve played on. Just being able to part of this, I don’t want it to end, but it’s coming to an end. I want to go out with a bang.”

The Dreads travel to East Lansing tomorrow to take on the no. 4 seed from the west regional, Grand Haven at 4 p.m.

Dexter Water Polo

Tony Golin

Jack Blodgett

Leo Varitek

Clayton Kinnard

Mitchell Sterlitz

Sam Sterlitz

Ben Duncan

Michael Baumann

Paul Schaefer

Luke Sayler

Griffin Bartscht

Head coach: Brian Semple

Assistant coach: Adam Theros

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