As far as Eric Richards is concerned, it was an ideal ending to a strong season for Cache Valley’s high school water polo club.
The Cache Valley Kraken ended up breaking seed in the girls and boys competitions at the Division II state tournament, which was contested from May 14-15 in St. George. The 13th-seeded girls upset Kearns and Skyline en route to finishing fourth, while the seventh-seeded boys blew out a lower-seeded team from Southern Utah and ended up placing fifth.
“We exceeded all expectations,” said Richards, who is the head coach of the local club.
This year’s Kraken teams were comprised of athletes from Ridgeline, Mountain Crest, Logan and Green Canyon, with the lion’s share of those players attending Ridgeline.
Rebeckah Day and Danya Sadler were all-state selections for the Cache Valley girls, while Benjamin Lehnig and Grant Simon received that distinction on the boys side. Day was one vote away from being named the girls state MVP.
The Kraken were fortunate that Day and her family relocated from California prior to the start of the 2020-21 academic year. Rebeckah’s family made the move to be closer to family while her father is receiving chemotherapy treatment. The senior is the youngest of five siblings, all of whom “are prolific water polo players,” Richards said.
“Just a lights out goalie,” Richards said of Day. “She broke all of our school records for shot speed, total points, total blocks. She was lights out. All of the other coaches recognized her skills.”
Day racked up a whopping 212 steals/blocks, led the team with 23 assists and even scored four times. Her shot speed was clocked at 32 MPH.
Likewise, Cache Valley had one of the premier male goalies in the state in Lehnig, who excelled despite competing with a rare genetic disorder called retinitis pigmentosa. Retinitis pigmentosa causes the retinal cells to break down and die, and it’s something Lehnig has preserved through for more than 10 years. The 6-foot-3 senior is nearly blind, but has developed a heightened sense of hearing and uses that remarkable ability, coupled with his formidable wingspan, to be an elite goalie.
Lehnig amassed 107 blocks/steals, which was only three behind team leader Nathan Weston.
“Our strongest suit was our goalie, Benjamin Lehnig,” Richards said. “... He was one of the best goalies in the state.”
Weston and Lehnig were two of six Cache Valley boys that accumulated between 100-137 points on this season. The Kraken had several key contributors offensively and defensively, and that’s a big reason why they won 16 of their 20 games. The Cache Valley girls finished with a record of 12-8.
“There isn’t a team that plays better as a team than our boys do,” Richards asserted. “And looking at the total points for each player — points include goals, assists, steals and blocks — each of the boys were within just a handful of points of each other. (We had) a completely balanced attack.”
On the boys side, Cache Valley had eight players score 19 or more goals during the 2021 campaign, plus seven that finished with double digit assists. Simon ranked first on the squad in assists (39) and third in goals (47), while Cole Dustin was the leader in goals (58) and was third in assists (23). Zac Dunker was the second-leading goal scorer with 49, and Issac Von Sorensen finished in the No. 2 spot in assists (27).
Leah Joeckel paced the Lady Kraken with an impressive 67 goals, while Ellie Sorensen finished second on the team in goals (39), assists (22) and steals/blocks (50). Jasmine Godfrey and Sadler teamed up for 35 goals and 23 assists.
Defensively, Cache Valley was anchored by Sadler and Sorensen on the girls side, and Izak Richards and Von Sorensen on the boys. Von Sorensen broke the single-season program record for steals, and Richards was right behind him. Coach Richards referred to Izak Richards — who led the team with his 39 MPH shot — and Von Sorensen as “shut down defenders.”
Cache Valley will lose four of its 10 varsity players on the boys side and four of 14 on the girls. Indeed, a lot of athletes will be back next season and coach Richards is confident the future is bright for the Kraken.
“Our upcoming group is just as strong,” coach Richards said. “We won’t miss too many steps next season. ... Our younger teams are productive, growing, learning and finishing in the top three or four in the state at the JV level. It was a good season for them.”
The Kraken’s varsity boys roster was comprised of Lehnig, Dustin, Simon, Von Sorensen, Dunker, Ryan Wiese, Stephen Bunnell, Richards, Weston and Peter Grunig. In addition to Day, Sadler, Sorensen, Godfrey and Joeckel, the Lady Kraken were represented by Jada Baugh, Kinsey Garlick, Carlie Godfrey, Sarah Cook, Hailey Benson, Ava Frandsen, Courtney Bishop, Beza Fryer and Hannah Meeker.
Von Sorensen, Bunnell, Dustin and Joeckel all enjoyed stellar seasons for their respective high school swimming programs, and that confidence gained and momentum earned surely carried over into the water polo season.
“(I believe) the best swim programs in the state have a number of water polo players,” coach Richards said. “We’re grateful that they’re good swimmers, but the swim coaches should be grateful that we help them become quicker. One of my adages is that swimming helps a young athlete become fast, but water polo helps them become quick. In other words, they can go fast in the water, but the water polo players with that quickness, their turns, their finishing speed, that’s when you can tell you have a water polo player that’s on your swim team — that quickness that just comes because of the sport and the different muscles that are in play.”
Coach Richards raved about the character of his players and said that is one of the biggest reasons he enjoys mentoring them.
“We tend to attract some of the kindest kids in the state to this sport,” he said. “The camaraderie, the level of love that they showed to each other, the respect they showed to the officials is off the charts. It’s a delight (to coach these kids). Parents, they love that their kids are in a safe, good, cohesive environment where their child can thrive and grow among a group of fantastic young people.”
Coach Richards has been encouraged by the growth of the sport in the valley, even with the struggles of securing pool time. He said there are currently 68 local kids between the ages of 9-18 participating in water polo. Additionally, 28 high schools in the Beehive State have a water polo club.
“If we can provide more opportunities for students to have positive, meaningful activities and interactions with their peers, it checks off a lot of boxes in my book,” coach Richards said.
Summer water polo camps in the valley will be held every Friday, starting on June 11. Those will all take place at the Stang Aquatic Center in Hyrum and will start at 9:30 a.m. For more information, got to cachepolo.com.
An in-depth feature story on Lehnig can be found at https://www.ksl.com/article/50164207/utah-teen-blocks-shots-in-the-pool-adversity-on-dry-ground.