With 50 seconds left in the second quarter of the final match at the Stanford Invitational, Pacific was called for an exclusion. Seconds later, the No. 9 Michigan water polo team took advantage of the power play as junior defender Kim Johnson found the back of the cage.
But those moments were few and far between.
During their 9-8 loss in the final game of the tournament, the Wolverines scored in just two of their 13 six-on-five matchups, a struggle that would ultimately doom them in the matchup.
Though Michigan fell to No. 8 Pacific, the Wolverines managed to finish fourth in the eight-team tournament, which included seven top-20 teams and the Chinese national team.
“In order for us to compete with the best, we have to play with the best,” said Michigan coach Marcelo Leonardi. “…You’re gonna get challenged every single game.”
And the Wolverines, for the most part, were up to the challenge.
In the first game against No. 11 UC Davis, freshman center defender Sofie Pontré scored almost immediately. A scoring barrage soon followed, and Michigan was up 4-0 after the first period. Though the Aggies cut the lead to two at one point, the Wolverines were able to weather the storm and emerged victorious, 14-9.
Against No. 2 California, Michigan again jumped out to a first-quarter lead thanks to a 3-0 run capped off by a breakaway shot from junior attacker Julia Sellers. However, that lead wouldn’t last.
For the majority of the game, the Wolverines and Golden Bears traded off goals. With Michigan down 7-6 toward the end of the third quarter, freshman utility player Maddy Johnston scored two goals in two minutes to complete a hat trick and later added on another. Freshman attacker Maddie O’Reilly scored a goal with just 43 seconds remaining to cut California’s lead to one and give the Wolverines some hope — a hope that was ultimately for naught as Michigan lost, 11-10.
“We had a lot of freshmen step up,” Leonardi said. “Maddy Johnston … stepped up with some quality goals. We rely heavily on a pretty young unit.”
The freshman unit — responsible for 18 of the team’s 46 goals — may soon lead the Wolverines to new heights. But its inexperience also showed in the team’s inability to come back against the Golden Bears and, later, the Powercats.
“This team hasn’t been in a lot of those one-goal battles, especially with so many younger kids, so putting them in that situation where they can see that look several times,” Leonardi said. “…We’re always looking to look at different scenarios … where if we see it again on any other team, we’ve experienced that.”
And despite the loss to California, Michigan’s near-upset gave it newfound confidence that it used to blow out No. 17 San Jose State, 14-3 — including hat tricks from Sellers and senior center Christina O’Beck.
“I felt like our entire team was on the same page, from our first unit to our second unit,” Leonardi said. “It didn’t really matter who was in the water. We were just clicking.”
Sophomore goalkeeper Heidi Ritner — coming off an injury that cost her six games — proved herself indispensable, holding the Spartans to just three goals.
“We wouldn’t be in the position we’re at … without Heidi,” Leonardi said. “She’s one of the best goalies in the country in her age group, and so I feel that having her back, it puts us in a position to win every game.”
In the final match against Pacific, though, the Wolverines’ youth came back to haunt them with their power play struggles. Had Michigan converted even one more opportunity, it could have gone home with another win.
But though the Wolverines didn’t come through in pressure situations this time, the experience will prove invaluable for the future.
“We have a lot of talent, but we’re also young,” Leonardi said. “It’s kind of creating those moments, those scenarios under pressure where the light is at its brightest … We finally closed the gap where we can face anyone in the top four and play with them. Now the next step is playing at a consistent level where we’re in a position we can beat the No. 2 team in the country. All good experience.”