Bearden water polo hoping to repeat as state champions

Bearden’s water polo team has returned to the pool hoping to clinch a second consecutive state championship.

Bearden is 3-1 in exhibition matches and is preparing to play in three tournaments, which will count as regular season games that will determine the seeding for the state tournament.

The Bulldogs will play in a round robin tournament on Friday and Saturday against Blount County, Cleveland, and Catholic.

Last year, Bearden’s first ever water polo team used their strong swimming skills to clinch Tennessee’s first ever high school water polo championship, but this year they hope to defend that their title with a more fundamentally sound team.

“We’re really hoping to improve our general knowledge of the game,” co-coach Andrew Hogan said. “[We’re] making sure everyone is really strong on defense and let[ting] some of older more experienced players from last year really carry the weight on offense.”

Added senior and team captain Tyler Haaland: “This year, we want to win by showing them that we know how to play rather than just out-swimming people.”

Haaland is one of the team’s more experienced players, having played on last year’s state championship team against Cleveland. On this year’s team, he has had to step up and take a leadership role by motivating his teammates, as well as working to keep everyone organized and focused on the task at hand.

Haaland built up his water polo skills this summer playing several games at UT, and he also played in a tournament in Cincinnati.

“He’s been a great leader,” Coach Hogan said. “He leads well in the pool; he’s a good rallying figure for his teammates to look at and stay strong when we’re down by a couple of points or we need to go and make big plays.”

Junior Kyle Hardesty, sophomore goalie Rainey Miles, and sophomores Ryan Knight and Madison Howarth, the latter of whom is currently injured, all played on last year’s state championship team and have also taken leadership roles. Hardesty has become a solid scorer and has brought a strong offensive presence for the Water Dogs this season, and Miles has had to hold his own at the goalie position.

“Really all of the kids are picking it up really fast and doing a great job,” Hogan said. “It’s hard to distinguish who is doing better than others when they’re all doing just so great with the sport.”

A two time SEC All-Conference player, Hogan is a member of the University of Tennessee’s water polo team, as is his co-coach, Sam Bondurant. Bondurant, who graduated from Bearden in 2012, was the one whose idea it was to create a water polo team at Bearden last year.

Both coaches bring different backgrounds and experiences when it comes to coaching Bearden. Hogan played water polo in high school, whereas Bondurant picked up the sport just two years ago.

Bearden is competing on a much bigger playing field this year since Tennessee’s high school water polo league has added several new teams as the popularity and interest of the sport continues to grow.

Coach Hogan said that last year there were only seven teams, including four from Knoxville, in the state tournament. That number could quite possibly change this May.

“The teams in Knoxville have gotten much better and have grown in size,” Hogan said. “And Memphis has picked up four or five more teams, so it’s going to be a lot more competitive this year.”

Bearden will still have to rely on their swimming strengths and their offensive presence from their more experienced players, but Coach Hogan said that he expects to make a repeat state tournament run this year despite the team’s inexperience.

“We expect to win it this year again, but in a better fashion,” Haaland said.