Michigan water polo aces tests, completes perfect weekend
In the No. 7 Michigan water polo team’s toughest contest of the weekend, it was challenged, but never fell behind. Going up against No. 15 San Diego State, the Wolverines (7-2) closed the match with a strong fourth quarter to seal the win after what had been a rocky third. It was first of four victories on the undefeated weekend as Michigan took care of the Aztecs, 12-9, on Saturday.
The first and second periods saw a back-and-forth affair, as the Wolverines and San Diego State (1-3) traded goals. Michigan senior attacker Ali Thomason scored three goals in the half, with one coming just before the halftime buzzer as the Wolverines took an 8-4 lead into the second half.
In the third period, the Aztecs began to play in a way that justified their high preseason ranking, notching all of the period’s three goals to cut the deficit to 8-7.
“Once it got close, it got a bit more serious,” said Michigan coach Marcelo Leonardi. “I wanted (the players) to feel it out, and I wanted to see how they would respond.”
With their coach waiting on a response, the Wolverines’ junior attacking duo of Danielle Johnson and Allison Skaggs took the hint and scored a pair of goals to push the lead to 10-7. The goals, one a breakaway and the other the result of phenomenal passing, proved to be the jolt the Wolverines needed in order to clinch the win and begin preparing for a Saturday night matchup against No. 24 Marist.
“Teams have one or two runs in them to come from behind, and they expend so much energy,” Leonardi said. “I feel like it is always one goal or one opportunity where we seize the opportunity.”
While the matchup versus Marist (1-3) started in a similar vogue as the San Diego State one, with play shifting up and down the pool, it was the second period in which Michigan came alive.
With a slight 3-2 lead after one, Michigan exploded offensively in the second period. Four different Wolverines scored, with Thomason notching two of her own. With the first half in the books, Michigan now had a commanding 8-3 lead.
In the second half, it was more of the same as the Ali Thomason show continued its screening. She notched another goal and facilitated many more for a cast of characters that included Skaggs, junior attack Kimberly Graziano, senior attack Kelly Martin and freshman defense Kim Johnson. The Wolverines would cruise and defeat the Red Foxes, 16-6.
“You have Ali Thomason and Kelly Martin, senior leaders … who, when push comes to shove, Ali and Kelly hold the rock,” Leonardi said.
In Sunday morning’s game against perennial contender No. 11 UC Santa Barbara (6-3), the quality was evident as both teams got off to hot starts. This time, it was Martin’s turn to shine as her two goals in the first period overpowered the Gauchos’ goalie.
In the second period, Thomason reemerged with two goals to keep Santa Barbara at bay.
Michigan began to pull away with three goals on three consecutive possessions. With a nice cushion to work with, the Wolverines didn’t rest on their laurels as they held on to start Saturday with a 14-8 win.
In the final match of the Michigan Invitational, the Wolverines entertained No. 12 Pacific (3-5) and started the match on a torrid streak.
Kim Johnson got the scoring started as she collected her sixth goal of the weekend. With a 4-1 lead after one period, things would be different in the second as the Tigers finished the period with two scores to bring the score to 6-4.
Then, just as Pacific cut the score to 7-6 in the third period, Michigan pulled away in a similar fashion as against San Diego State.
Danielle Johnson scored the game’s final two goals as the Wolverines completed their perfect weekend by defeating the Tigers, 11-7.
With a matchup against two-time defending national champion Stanford next weekend, celebrating a perfect weekend was a short affair as the focus is now firmly on beating the Cardinal.
“(Stanford) has the culture, the tradition … as well as the elite-level athletes,” Leonardi said. “I feel we are getting to that next tier … but in terms of being (ranked) at four through seven, I think we are there.”