The final shot came barrelling in, but Heidi Ritner was never worried.
The senior goaltender had her defense in perfect position and the ball sailed harmlessly over the net. That strong defensive effort led the No. 7 Michigan water polo team (5-3) to a 7-6 victory on Sunday against No. 9 UC Santa Barbara (6-3) to close out the Michigan Invitational.
Playing their first games in front of home fans, the Wolverines opened up with an 11-8 win against No. 21 Wagner (1-3), which they dominated from the start. The team struggled against No. 5 UCLA (8-1) and took a tough 12-4 loss before bouncing back with a 7-4 win against No. 11 Pacific (2-3). The final match of the day against the Gauchos, though, ended up being the most thrilling of the weekend.
“That game had so many different things that symbolize what a championship match looks like,” Michigan coach Dr. Marcelo Leonardi said.
The game kicked off with an influx of fouls and a lack of scoring. Each team took a power play but could not capitalize. It was not until halfway through the first quarter that junior attacker Maddie O’Reilly opened the scoring with her thirteenth goal of the year. She leads the team in points and has set the tone on offense.
“We’ve tried to maximize her shot selection and she’s doing a great job,” Leonardi said. “She’s just naturally confident, which takes time, but I like her mindset when it comes to playing.”
Added O’Reilly: “I’m a junior now. I’m trying to be a leader as much as possible.”
Her confidence helped elevate the rest of the team in the second period. The Wolverines traded goals with UC Santa Barbara, but largely dominated the pace of play. Several players hit the crossbar and kept up the offensive pressure. Junior defender Emily Ritner buried a shot in the back of the net with a minute left to put the Wolverines up, 4-2, at the half.
Michigan was in control, but the game felt far from over.
“I thought they were going to get opportunities to at least get back into it.” Leonardi said. “We had to be able to finish the game.”
After Michigan made it 5-2 with an early third quarter goal from Erin Neustrom, the Gauchos stormed back. They scored two goals within a minute to trim the deficit to 5-4 entering the fourth.
UC Santa Barbara tied it up just forty seconds into the final period. The Wolverines took back the lead with goals from junior defender Sophie Pontre and junior utility player Kathy Rogers. Michigan held a 7-5 lead and looked on their way to an easy finish until a Gauchos goal with a minute remaining suddenly made it a one-goal game again.
UC Santa Barbara loaded up for one final push to tie the game, but ultimately, the defense held.
“(I was) just making sure everyone was calm and composed,” Ritner said. “Everyone knew we were going to walk out with the W.”
Ritner, who had eight saves on the day, led the strong defensive effort from her goal. She made some difficult saves early on to keep the game close and stood tall when it mattered most.
“I have one of the best goalies in the country,” Leonardi said. “She makes this look easy.”
In a game of ebbs and flows, the Wolverines were able to squeeze out a 7-6 victory. They now shift their focus to the Stanford Invitational next weekend. Having shaken off the early season rust, they are now beginning to find an identity.
“(It starts with) our defense.” Leonardi said. “Our defense and our confidence.”