Once the six-team bracket was posted, Jason Hillenburg announced, “Let’s play ball.”
The first two teams donned firefighter helmets. Two members were responsible for the lead firehose, two were on the backup hose and one served as the coach.
A timer was set at three minutes, and the teams turned on their hoses.
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The idea was to use the firehose, which produced 90 pounds of pressure when the lever was pulled, to keep the yellow 15-pound ball made of pot metal and hollow inside on the opponent’s side the longest or furthest.
In the double-elimination waterball contest, Team ‘Merica came all the way back from the losers’ bracket to win, handing the Tampico Troubadours their only two losses of the morning.
It was the first time in more than 20 years for the Crothersville-Vernon Township Volunteer Fire Department to conduct the contest on the last day of the Crothersville Red, White and Blue Festival.
“When I started four years ago on the department, several people in the community asked if we would ever bring it back, and I said that’s something to look into,” Hillenburg said.
“I remember coming up and watching it be played when I was a kid, and I never got the chance to play because they quit doing it before I was old enough, so it was always an aspiration of mine to bring it back,” he said. “When I was a kid, there would be hundreds of people up here watching it and 20 teams or better. It was a great morning kickoff for the Saturday of the festival. I just felt like, ‘Let’s bring it back.’”
About a month ago, Hillenburg and fellow firefighter Brian Clouse received the OK from the fire department board of directors, town council and festival committee to revive the contest, which was first conducted when the festival started 41 years ago and ended in the mid-1990s.
People had to be at least 18 to participate, but other than that, Hillenburg and Clouse didn’t know much about the rules of the contest.
Hillenburg contacted a fire department in Ohio that has been doing a similar contest for 143 years and talked to a past Crothersville-Vernon fire chief to figure out how to run the competition.
On Friday, Hillenburg said he began getting nervous and excited at the same time about the contest.
“I had nervous anxiety this morning and just anticipation of what was going to happen,” he said. “I was so nervous I couldn’t even think straight. I couldn’t even tell you how many feet of hose we had. I was excited and couldn’t sleep last night.”
Once the contest started and he could tell everyone had a good time, Hillenburg was able to celebrate the revival of the contest.
“It was a blast. It was great,” he said. “I was so excited to see everybody having a good time and doing it safely and having fun. I told them the main thing is that everybody has fun. I think we did.”
Clouse, a volunteer firefighter and president of the department’s board of directors, said he thought the contest generated interest in the festival. The fire department also sold fish and ribeye steak dinners and had an ice cream vendor throughout the three-day festival.
“Our sales were better at the firehouse. There has been more people that we’ve seen down here (on the festival grounds),” he said. “Whether it’s waterball or whether it was just the talk of the festival, I don’t know what it was, but it has brought people around.”
Of the five members of Team ‘Merica, Tyson Reynolds of Crothersville was the only one with prior waterball experience.
“It was about the same. You stand out there and get wet,” he said, smiling.
Reynolds manned the lead firehose with Eric Burns of Scottsburg.
“I try to stay with the ball, just anywhere the ball is, and a nice, steady hand,” Reynolds said.
“I make him look good,” Burns said with a grin.
Teams struggled on the right side of the competition area, but Team ‘Merica broke through on the last game and finally picked up a win on that side.
“It seemed like more water hit you over here (on the right side), and you couldn’t see as much as what you could on the other side,” Reynolds said.
Jarred Boswell of Scottsburg was the team’s coach on the last game.
“I just did the best I could trying to tell (Reynolds) whether or not he could go forward or backward,” Boswell said. “It was a blast. I had a lot of fun. I thought it was awesome, and I think it’s cool that everybody gets to participate.”
The other team members, Darrin Jones and Jaime Land, both of Crothersville, also liked participating in the contest.
“I had a blast, and I hope they keep on doing it,” Jones said. “I just like to have fun and be around good people.”
The team of Tim Nehrt, Bob Lewis, Bret Seals and Ardell Mitchell, all of Crothersville, and James Hickerson of Indianapolis found success in the contest years ago and thought they would give it another try.
In the early 1990s, that team claimed the trophy three straight years.
“Back then, there were like 20 teams in it, about three times more teams in it than there is now. It was single-elimination back then, too,” Lewis said.
“It usually took until 3 or 4 in the afternoon,” Nehrt said.
When the contest ended in the mid-1990s, the five men, who went to school in Crothersville at about the same time, didn’t think it would ever be revived.
“We always had a ball, and it was always such a great thing for this festival to get the community together,” Nehrt said. “All of us went to school together, and we’ve been friends all of our lives. We never dreamed it would still be around.”
The team brought one of its trophies to Saturday’s competition as a way to intimidate the competition, but they wound up being knocked out of the contest early.
But that was OK. They all still had a good time and said they will compete again next year.
“I liked being able to be around all of my friends because we hardly get together anymore as a group like we used to,” Nehrt said.
“I just like the chance to be with our friends out here and camaraderie and having a good time,” Lewis said. “It’s good for the town to have some more fun, get some more activities out here like they used to have.”
Hickerson said his father was the Crothersville-Vernon fire chief for about 25 years, and he grew up watching area firemen compete in the contest.
“When the professionals used to battle, it was a big rivalry, and they’d come from town to town and really make a contest out of it,” he said. “You’ve got professionals against professionals, and there was a lot of pride on the line.”
Being able to come back years later and participate was great, Hickerson said.
“It’s all about our friends having a good time,” he said. “It’s just a great reason to get together and have a little fun. The festival is always a good time, and it’s another draw for the crowd.”
The contest also was a good way to support the fire department, Lewis said.
“That’s what it’s all about right there, supporting your town and having a good time out here at the festival and keeping the festival going with more activities,” he said.
Clouse said serving dinners at the firehouse is the department’s largest fundraiser each year, bringing in about $3,500. The department also does a community yard sale in May, and local industry Cerrowire has the firefighters serve meals to its employees as safety bonuses several times a year.
The department puts that money toward equipment, fuel, insurance and other needs. It also receives about $30,000 a year from the township, but it costs nearly $60,000 to run the department at a bare minimum.
Clouse said they appreciate everyone who supports the 21-member department.
“We can’t thank them enough because if it wasn’t for people supporting us, we couldn’t do what we do for the community,” he said.
Hillenburg said he and Clouse learned a few things from this year’s waterball contest and will make those adjustments for next year.
“As long as I’m on this department, this will never stop,” Hillenburg said of waterball. “We will do it every Saturday of the festival.”