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Eight years in the making: Kelsey Nolan conquers the unknown

By Brad Whipple, Daily Sports Writer
Published April 21, 2014

Inside the foyer of Canham Natatorium is a collection of memories that the Michigan water polo team holds dearly.

Encased in glass are water polo balls that have won championships, signed by the players who earned them, team photographs frozen in time and several Collegiate Water Polo Association Championship trophies standing tall. They are mementos that mark the success of a 14-year-old program — one that boasts 11 CWPA Division Championships, five NCAA Tournament Appearances and 27 All-Americans.

Resting on the wall above are portraits of Wolverines that have left their mark on the program, whether by becoming an Olympian or holding an all-time record. It’s no easy feat to get one’s name on the wall, a reflection of hard work that sometimes takes years to be recognized.

But for senior Kelsey Nolan, it didn’t take long. In the attacker’s sophomore year, she helped her team to a Western Division Championship and earned the distinction of AWPCA All-American along with her spot on the wall.

Water polo hasn’t always come naturally for Nolan, though, and her action shot hanging on the wall represents more than one stellar season. It’s the result of becoming familiar with the unknown.

But familiarity was only the beginning.

***

It was the summer before Nolan started high school, and she didn’t even know water polo was a sport.

The San Jose, Calif. native was a competitive swimmer since she was three, but never held onto a water polo ball. Nolan was known to be fast, and long-time friend Amy Georgiuo suggested she make the transition to water polo, seeing the talent she could bring to Leland High School’s team. But Georgiuo, a year ahead of Nolan, didn’t get the answer she wanted: “No.”

There was almost no hesitation from Nolan, who already had her next four years planned out. She had also been playing soccer for eight years and hope to get recruited for college. Planning to play two sports her freshman year, there was no incentive to add another commitment to an already crammed schedule.

Georgiuo and Morgan Gahagan, another friend Nolan has known since she was in diapers, pestered her more, and it took only a month until Nolan caved in and joined the San Jose Almaden club team that summer.

“I wouldn’t be here today if Amy didn’t go force me to play,” Nolan said. “I have no idea where I would be.”

***

Nolan didn’t just become acquainted with the sport that summer, but made a strong entrance at Leland in the fall when she earned herself a spot on the varsity roster.

She knew Georgiuo, the Chargers’ goalkeeper, along with a few of the six seniors, but her intimidation didn’t subside. Relative to most water polo players, Nolan was smaller in both height and build — she referred to herself as a “terrified little freshman.”

The aggressiveness wasn’t fully there yet, and neither was the strength, preventing Nolan from making the starting lineup. But halfway through the season, opportunity knocked when the starting sprinter, who hadn’t lost a sprint in four years and held almost every school record, got injured.

“In the beginning, Kelsey didn’t think she was that good,” said Leland coach Eric Rise. “(But) you could tell she was an athlete even in eighth grade.”

Rise, who had coached Nolan through the summer, looked to her to fill the void. She had no idea what she was doing.

“You just go out there and you swim,” Rise told her.

She had no other option.

***

Nolan joined the Olympic Development Program Pacific Zone team at the end of her freshman year, which she considered the worst days of her life — she hated it, but took a lot of lessons away from it as she sought to improve. She even met some now recognizable faces: senior attacker Hathaway Moore and senior driver Audrey Pratt.

But by attempting to find her niche in a sport where everyone was bigger than her, Nolan gained a certain level of toughness and confidence that made sophomore year the pinnacle of her high school career.

“I remember coming back my sophomore year, and I was just a totally different person,” Nolan said.

With only one senior on Rise’s 2007 roster, Nolan — who by then had quit soccer — was named captain. Along with it came an enormous amount of weight on her shoulders. She had gone from being a scared freshman to letting go of her fear and showing some grit.

Rise saw the example Nolan set by treating the rest of the players as family, which avoided the creation of cliques. She hated losing more than she loved winning — if Nolan missed practice, she made up for it with individual sprints on her own time. She wasn’t big, but she was ferocious and had the physical and mental toughness that made her a threat for any opponent.

“She just had no fear,” Rise said. “I’ve had a few players like her, but it’s rare to see someone that talented, that driven, who hates losing that much and sacrifices that much as a high school teenager.”

***

In what was expected to be a rebuilding year, the Chargers were 19-11 going into the postseason, the worst record Rise has seen in his five years of coaching. Leland also lost in the Blossom Valley Athletic League Championship for the first time ever, and, as a No. 5 seed, was not favored to go far in the Central Coast Sectionals.

When Nolan told friends and family to come watch a game of water polo, she expected a blowout against No. 4 seed Palo Alto, a team Leland had never beaten in the program’s history. That changed, though, when the Chargers managed to pull the upset.

In the next round against No. 1 seed Los Altos, Nolan stole the ball with three seconds left to advance again.

Leland was the tournament’s Cinderella, and other coaches recognized who made the glass slipper fit: Nolan, who was averaging five goals. In the next game against Menlo-Atherton, the Bears attacked her until she drew three exclusions by the end of the first quarter and was ejected.

Rise knew it was over when Nolan emerged from the pool, and told her they’d get another chance next year — the leaderless Chargers lost.

“I was really upset, because I was there and we had the chance to win,” Nolan said. “But then at the same time, I had to take a step back and realize we weren’t even supposed to be there.”

***

Nolan capped her senior year by playing on the NorCal Water Polo club team with Pratt and Moore, who were known as the “Michigan girls” because they committed there. Come fall 2010, the trio had a new home in Ann Arbor.

But it was back to the bottom of the totem pole for Nolan. After being weakened from a sprained labrum during the summer, she was once again a small freshman among bigger and better players.

When former attacker Cara Reitz held a barbecue at her house, she was 30 minutes late and learned her first college lesson.

“Cara ripped my head off for being late,” Nolan said. “I was never ever late to anything again.”

It set the tone for Nolan’s freshman year, when she thought she was terrible because she drew too many kick-out fouls. Rather than having to adjust to several roles as she did on Leland’s small team, she now solely donned the number three in the attack position.

Though she had a set number and position, Nolan was still thrown off by the adjustment, and she was once again nervous and timid.

But that wasn’t unusual for a freshman making the transition to the intense physicality of collegiate water polo — this time around, it wouldn’t take a year to make her mark. She was the lone rookie to start all 37 games for Michigan, scoring 20 goals with 19 assists.

Though the Wolverines won their 10th Western Championship that year, they fell to rival Indiana, 5-3, in the Eastern Championship, ending a three-year win streak and failing to reach the NCAA Tournament.

Nolan wouldn’t dance in the postseason in her debut year, and the season came to a surprising and quick close like it had in her freshman year of high school.

***

The story unfolded just like high school — sophomore year was Nolan’s shining moment.

She scored 39 goals, a career high that she reached again this year, and earned All-American honors. In the 2012 Western Championship, Nolan carried the Wolverines past rival Indiana, which has always been Michigan’s toughest competition, setting her team up to win its 11th division title in the final round.

“I just have no idea how I did all of that,” Nolan told MGoBlue.com following an explosive second-half, five-goal performance after sitting out the first because of foul trouble. “I was sitting on the bench just getting all riled up and ready to go in. I finally got to go in and just saw the opportunities and was taking them.”

But there’d be no NCAA Tournament for the Wolverines for the second straight year when they fell to Maryland in the Eastern Championship. In a desperate attempt against the Terrapins, Nolan scored with 1:49 left in the game to narrow Michigan’s deficit to within one goal, but it wasn’t enough.

Two years later, Nolan still is looking for a bid.

“It’s really depressing,” Nolan said. “(Making the NCAA Tournament) means putting it all together when it counts. But I did it my sophomore year of high school, so anything is possible.”

***

“Those who stay” is an appropriate mantra for Nolan.

Nolan’s class size originally started out at 10, and has since dwindled down to just her, Pratt and Moore because of injuries and defections — coincidentally or by fate, it’s the same trio that met eight years ago in Northern California.

Michigan’s slow start to the 2014 season can be attributed to the team’s inexperienced roster, but Nolan has been the veteran backbone for the Wolverines as they turned the season around and are now on the brink of earning their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2010.

If Nolan had followed through with soccer all those years ago, Michigan could be in an entirely different position. If Georgiou had stopped asking her to try it out, Nolan may not have found her drive to learn and to master something she had no experience with — the extra work, commitment and passion have been accumulating for so long.

“I’ve just been really driven,” Nolan said. “I’ve really wanted to do well, wanted to excel and so I worked really hard in high school, because I felt like I was 10 steps behind a lot of people who have been playing for so long.”

Nolan hopes to play professionally in Australia, but she thinks the road ends when she graduates. In turn, the uncertainty has inspired her to not take the opportunity she has now for granted.

“I really want to try to get everything out that I can,” she said. “I want to learn all that I can and be the best that I can be.”

In a way, she has done all she can, but only in a way, because there is still work to finish. There’s an Eastern Championship to win and an NCAA Tournament bid to receive.

It’s not about winning or losing for Nolan, but rather finishing. Starting small, weak and unaware of what she was getting herself into, she ends her career having conquered years of training and competing. She’s fearless and strong in both the mind and body, and even when she faces uncertainty, she’ll be ready to dive right in.