Three years ago, the Michigan water polo team’s future looked bleak.
An early exit in the Collegiate Water Polo Association tournament prompted a coaching change, leading some members of the team to transfer and go to a team with better potential. The then-freshmen — who are now seniors — knew it was up to them to steer the team in the right direction.
Fast forward to March 25, 2017, and those seniors were now playing in their last game in Canham Natatorium. On Senior Day, No. 7 Michigan thrashed No. 15 Indiana (0-1 CWPA, 13-7 overall), 11-6, in a game the Wolverines never trailed. Michigan (1-0, 18-8) opened up conference play in dominant fashion, with three players scoring multiple goals.
The Wolverines came out firing early Saturday, as sophomore attacker Julia Sellers scored just 51 seconds into the game. Indiana quickly responded following a Michigan exclusion, tying the score at 1-1. But after a lob shot from sophomore defender Kim Johnson landed in the back of the net with five minutes left in the first quarter, Michigan took control for good, scoring six unanswered goals.
“I thought we were super explosive,” said Michigan coach Marcelo Leonardi. “The game plan was to attack certain people who defensively weren’t as athletic as us.”
Sellers and Johnson were the guiding force behind the Wolverines’ victory, as they each recorded hat-tricks on the day. Freshman utility player Maddy Steere scored twice.
In front of friends and family, it was only fitting that senior center Allison Skaggs and senior utility player Danielle Johnson each scored goals in their final game at Canham.
“It felt like we just dominated the entire game,” Johnson said. “There was never a moment where I was afraid we were going to lose.”
Added Skaggs: “It’s an incredible feeling. . . . My team did a really nice job of making us feel really special.”
Skaggs and Johnson were part of a sophomore class that welcomed Leonardi with open arms upon his arrival three years ago. They were, in essence, his “first class”.
“I feel like I’ve grown up with them,” Leonardi said. “I feel like they’ve made me better as a coach, and I’ve helped them forge their pathways as a student athlete.”
The Wolverines’ six seniors were the ones who decided to stick it out and stay at Michigan when others transferred their sophomore year.
“We had a rough freshman year . . . but I think that’s what makes our senior class so strong,” Skaggs said. “We all stuck together. We wanted to stay at Michigan.
“. . . When Marcelo came in it was definitely a culture shock and a change but it was for the better.”
Added Leonardi: “This is the group that stayed and still believed in what we were trying to build.”
That senior class has accounted for 87 wins and a 19-5 conference record in four years at Michigan. In 2016, the Wolverines took home a CWPA championship and finished fourth at the NCAA championship — the first time a team east of California ever made the semifinals.
With one month until the conference championship, the class that stuck together still has work to do.
“We’re here,” Johnson noted. “And we’re ready to win.”