Erin Nuestrom had to find a way. 

The sophomore center already tallied two goals on the day against UC Santa Barbara, but in a tight 4-4 game, the situation demanded more. With four minutes remaining, Nuestrom found herself with a favorable match-up, caught a pass from junior defender Emily Ritner and buried the game-winning goal in the back of the net. 

The No. 10 Michigan water polo team (7-8) escaped with a 5-4 win over No. 9 UCSB (9-7) on Sunday to close out the Barbara Kalbus Invitational with a 2-2 record. On Saturday, the Wolverines started strong with an 11-10 win over No. 7 California (10-5), but they could not keep that momentum. They were outplayed in a 7-2 loss to No. 2 UCLA (17-2) and then suffered a tough 9-8 loss to No. 6 UC Irvine (12-5). 

Entering their final match of the weekend against the Gauchos, Michigan leaned on its defensive prowess to get the win — its third victory over UC Santa Barbara this season. 

“Both teams really struggled to score goals,” Michigan coach Dr. Marcelo Leonardi said. “We kept grinding and chipping away and trying to find advantages.”

The Gauchos grabbed an early lead, but junior attacker Maddie O’Reilly quickly responded with a score to even things up at one. From there, both defenses locked in. The only other goal of the half came from Santa Barbara’s Sarah Snyder. 

Senior goaltender Heidi Ritner neutralized the Gauchos’ offense throughout the game. They peppered her with shots, but she was unfazed.

“She controlled our defense,” Leonardi said. “(She) led us not only with saves but (with) her presence.”

Mirroring the first pair of goals, both teams continued the back-and-forth affair. Neustrom tied it up at two with four minutes left in the third quarter. The teams traded goals again, and it was tied at three heading into the fourth. 

The lack of bulk scoring continued to bog down the game, though, and neither team wanted to make a mistake. 

“Everybody wants to win, and it’s basically the first team to break down,” Leonardi said. “It’s possession by possession.”

A key possession came early in the fourth quarter when Nuestrom fired in her second goal to give Michigan its first lead of the game, 4-3. 

“(She) had a great weekend,” Leonardi said. “She generated a lot of opportunities for us to score.”

The Gauchos tied it right back up minutes later. The Wolverines had to dig deep. 

And once again, Nuestrom was there to make it happen. 

She finished off her hat trick and gave Michigan what turned out to be the decisive goal. 

From there, the defense clamped down. The Wolverines unsung hero was junior defender Sofie Pontré who helped hold off the swarming Santa Barbara attack down the stretch. 

“She’s responsible for guarding everybody’s best playmaker,” Leonardi said. “The production line at that position doesn’t really show but that’s the reason why our defense played exceptionally well.”

The clock ran out and Michigan had secured a 5-4 win. It wasn’t pretty, but the Wolverines took that as a positive. They struggled to find the back of the net but they found something more important — an identity. 

“I’m a big believer that what we are by the time we get to this tournament is who we are the rest of the season,” Leonardi said. “I feel that we are gritty. We have passion and perseverance. We just find a way.”

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