In just his second year at the helm of the Michigan women’s water polo team, coach Marcelo Leonardi took a plunge into the water as a champion.
When he rose to the surface, his players continued to jump into Blodgett Pool at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Junior goalkeeper Emily Browning held up a GoPro, ready to capture the moment that came next: the singing of the “The Victors.”
For the first time since 2010, the Wolverines won the Collegiate Water Polo Association championship — their sixth title in program history — with a 9-2 rout of No. 13 Indiana. With Sunday’s victory, Michigan earned a bid to the NCAA Tournament, where it will face No. 9 Arizona State on May 13 in Los Angeles, Calif.
Wednesday, the Wolverines also jumped ahead one spot in the CWPA national rankings to tie with the University of California at the No. 4 spot, Michigan’s highest ranking in program history.
“We’ve accomplished one of our major goals, which was to win (the conference championship) and qualify for NCAAs,” Leonardi told MGoBlue after Sunday’s win. “It feels a little bit surreal, because we feel like we still have unfinished business to do. But at the end of the day, we brought home a championship back to Michigan.”
Though the Wolverines lost to the Hoosiers in the CWPA semifinals in each of the last two seasons, including an overtime loss by only one point last year, Michigan exercised its demons this time around.
On April 2, the Wolverines (7-0 CWPA, 29-6 overall) stole the show in Bloomington, downing Indiana (6-1, 23-7) by three points in the rivals’ sole regular-season match. One time wasn’t enough, however, as Michigan still needed to reverse the Hoosier curse that has prevented it from making an even deeper dive into the postseason.
Luckily for the Wolverines, they did exactly that Sunday behind a season-high 13-save performance by senior goalkeeper Julia Campbell and an aggressive offense led by freshman driver Kim Johnson.
In front of Campbell was an impenetrable defense that made it difficult for Indiana to make it more than halfway down the pool. Michigan prevented the Hoosiers from tallying their first goal until 10 minutes into the matchup, and the Wolverines’ power-play defense held Indiana to only one goal on eight extra-man opportunities.
After Campbell held Indiana scoreless for the third quarter, the Hoosiers netted one last goal in the final frame, but it was insignificant. Michigan held Indiana to just two goals, tying the fewest goals allowed in the CWPA final since Hartwick downed the Wolverines, 5-2, in the 2004 CWPA championship game.
Meanwhile, Johnson anchored Michigan’s offense with her first-career hat trick, earning her the distinction of the tournament’s top rookie to go along with her Rookie of the Year honor. As for senior attacker Ali Thomason, she was named the CWPA Tournament MVP with eight goals, four assists and eight steals in three games.
“We just worked our butts off all year and it’s just so amazing to make it happen — make it happen for the seniors,” Johnson told MGoBlue. “I know they’ve been wanting this for so long, and I’m just so happy I got to be a part of it and I got to contribute.”
Added Thomason: “Emotions were high. Everything’s on the line, especially for the seniors. You’re playing for your last game, (and) if you lose, it’s the last time you’ll play in college.”
The conference championship is not only the first title for each current Michigan player, but it is also the first for Leonardi, who had won a gold medal with the USA Youth National Team before coming to Ann Arbor.
With one championship now in the books for Michigan, another still lies ahead.
May 13, the Wolverines will face Arizona State, which earned one of three at-large bids, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Michigan last matched up with the Sun Devils at the Arizona Invite on March 19, when then-No. 9 Arizona State defeated the Wolverines, 8-5. Michigan holds a 2-5 record against all nine teams in this year’s NCAA field.
Overall, the Wolverines are 5-9 in the NCAA Tournament and have never survived a first-round matchup, so Friday’s game will be a true test for this year’s squad. Michigan’s last NCAA Tournament appearance ended with a sixth-place finish in 2010, and its most successful showing came with a fourth-place finish in 2002.
Given how quick Leonardi has turned the program around, Michigan has high potential for the weekend ahead.