It was a chance to measure up with some of the nation’s toughest competition as the No. 7 Michigan water polo team (2-2) kicked off its season in the UCSB Invitational over the weekend. The Wolverines captured victories over No. 22 Cal State Northridge (2-2) and No. 11 UC Santa Barbara (3-2), but suffered tough losses to No. 4 California (3-2) and No. 5 UC Irvine (2-0).

“I think this was a great gauge for us,” Michigan coach Marcelo Leonardi said. “It’s one of the toughest first weekends I think we’ve played since I’ve been here at Michigan.”

Despite the 2-2 finish, the Wolverines gained valuable experience from the tournament. Leonardi said one of his concerns going in was “the amount of youth” they had on the team. His worries were eased as freshman utility player Anne Rankin scored four goals and had three assists and sophomore attacker Ava Morrant poured in seven goals over the course of the weekend. 

The strongest showing from Michigan came in a losing effort to the Golden Bears. The Wolverines came out of the gate hot and held a 5-2 lead at the half. California rallied back with three unanswered goals to tie it in the third quarter. In a back and forth final frame, Michigan surrendered the game-winning goal with just seconds remaining to lose, 8-7. Despite the heartbreaking loss, the Wolverines came away from the game feeling good about their performance. 

“It’s a good confidence booster that we’re able to be that close with the top four the first weekend of the season,” senior goalie Heidi Ritner said. 

“Especially when you’re young, you gotta learn how to lose close games,” Leonardi said. He believes his team can grow from the loss to one of the nation’s best teams. 

The growth was already apparent in the final game of the weekend against the Gouchos. The Wolverines won, 9-7, in a game they controlled from the start.

“The momentum carried over to the Santa Barbara game,” Leonardi said. “We had a great start and we kind of learned how (to) finish.”

A standout offensive performance came from junior attacker Maddie O’Reilly, who had six goals and five assists in the tournament. After a slow start, she turned it up as the games went on and closed out the final game with three goals against UC Santa Barbara.

“She got hot at the right situation,” Leonardi said. “She hit some pretty clutch shots.”

On the other side of the ball, Ritner was solid defending the goal, accruing seven steals. She also helped secure the win against the Gauchos with two penalty shot saves. Leonardi liked what he saw from the captain — not just from her play — but from her leadership.

“(She was) not only making saves, but just being a presence (from) the cage, being vocal,” Leonardi said. 

Ritner was proud of Michigan’s achievements and felt good about the future of the team. “I think that this is the strongest we’ve ever been this early in the season,” she said. 

The Wolverines are oozing confidence after holding their own against some of the best water polo teams on the West Coast. Michigan has lofty goals for the season and the key to success may not be their performance in the pool, but their mentality moving forward.  

“I feel that if we set some expectations like reaching a final four,” Leonardi said. “(Then) I think that’s in our wheelhouse.” 

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