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Wolverines return home for the first time since January

Patrick Barron/Daily
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By Brad Whipple, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 12, 2014

The Michigan water polo team hasn’t lost a game in the Wolverine Invitational since 2007.

As for the five challengers who hope to change that this weekend, not one has ever beaten the 20th-seeded Wolverines.

And with Michigan now riding a seven-game win streak, there looks to be little chance of stopping the momentum.

Saturday, the Wolverines (0-2 CWPA West, 10-10 overall) return to Canham Natatorium after two months on the road. That night, they’ll face Gannon, Notre Dame (Ohio) and Pacific before battling Siena and Fresno Pacific on Sunday.

In the home tournament that dates back to 2005, Michigan is 34-6.

“That’s kind of how the program has been built,” said Michigan coach Matt Anderson. “They are a lot more relaxed, a lot happier to be at home, so they tend to play better.”

In their two CWPA games so far this season, the Wolverines have fallen both times to Indiana, and have been waiting for an opportunity to even out the conference record. Saturday, Michigan will get that chance against Gannon (2-1, 6-5) and Notre Dame College (0-3, 1-5).

Gannon has lost 20 straight contests in the all-time series against the Wolverines. A year ago, Michigan defeated the Lady Knights twice by large margins — 17-2 in last year’s invitational and 14-3 in the CWPA Western Division Championship. Notre Dame has run into similar problems in the past, suffering 20-1 and 20-6 losses last season to the Wolverines.

“The main thing is we want to play well,” Anderson said. “There are times when you may not win, but you play well. Right now, we’re doing a good job. Our plan is to even up our league record.”

Saturday night will be Michigan’s first-ever meeting against Pacific (5-10). The Tigers are coming off their last tournament with a 1-4 record, an indication that they may have trouble going head-to-head with the Wolverines — Anderson still considers it to be a big game.

“It’s a challenge for them to come out here in the middle of March and maybe not be used to the weather and the travel, but we’ll see,” Anderson said. “They’re going to present a challenge to us, and we’re looking forward to it.”

Come game time, Michigan will need to perform like the version of itself that just upset No. 16 San Diego State last weekend if the Wolverines have any expectation of extending their win streak to 12.

Leading the Michigan offense is senior attacker Kelsey Nolan, who is six goals shy of her season-best of 39 and is one of the program’s all-time leading scorers.

But the seniors don’t entirely lead the team on the stat sheet. The next three top scorers are a mix of underclassmen: sophomore driver Presley Pender (26), sophomore driver Ali Thomason (25) and freshman two-meter Allison Skaggs (24).

Wednesday, Pender and Skaggs earned CWPA Western Division Players of the Week. It’s Skaggs’ second straight honor after she netted six goals at last weekend’s Harvard Invitational. Anderson called the duo’s performances “outstanding.”

“Skaggs, even though she is a freshman, has been really stepping up and really been playing well all-around,” he said. “Presley is picking up where she left off last year and is becoming better in different parts of her game while still being able to score and make assists at the same time.”

Last weekend, the Wolverines won three games because they were able to come together as a team. Anderson said that style will stick around, but his team’s greatest challenge will be focus.

“When you’re on the road for 10 days, it’s easy to lose your focus,” Anderson said. “It’s not letting all the outside distractions of family coming to town, being home and the snowstorm. It’s just making sure we stay focused on what we want to do.”