After playing its first three games in the Michigan Invitational over the weekend, the No. 7 Michigan water polo team (5-3) thought it had made all the adjustments necessary for its offense to dominate in its final game against No. 9 UC Santa Barbara.
The team went 2-1 in its earlier tournament contests, but its nail-biting victory was fueled not by experience from earlier matches, but by mid-game adjustments and a stout defensive performance against the Gauchos.
When the two teams played last weekend in California, the Wolverines were efficient in their power plays, but that efficiency fell flat in their second meeting.
Michigan thought it could attack UC Santa Barbara with the same strategy. But it was wrong.
“I’m sure that they went back, they watched film,” Michigan coach Dr. Marcelo Leonardi said. “They made their adjustments … we had to make in-game adjustments to counter their adjustments.”
In the first half, Leonardi opened up the lineup more — due to fatigue setting in after a long weekend invitational — rotating in more players at a time and going deeper into the roster. But as the game became closer and closer, Leonardi needed to tighten up the roster due to some mental lapses and personnel breakdowns.
The adjustments, mainly offensive, allowed sophomore center Erin Neustrom to get better looks and draw more exclusions.
“A lot of my game is how teammates get the ball into me,” Neustrom said. “We have been doing a great job of that this year and my position is just feeding off of them.”
The Wolverines needed offensive adjustments to beat a team for the second time in one week, but their overall defensive strategy remained the same.
“Our defense contained them,” Leonardi said. “You hold a team like that who I feel like is high octane. They play really fast. They are going to create a lot of scoring opportunities so kind of keep our defense in check.”
And a more productive offense allowed for the defense to shine and play one of their best games to date. Praised by her coach as “one of the best goalies in the country,” senior goaltender Heidi Ritner had eight saves and two steals. Once the defense locked in after a shaky start to the second half, the Gauchos’ offense fell flat, allowing the Wolverines to maintain their slim lead.
“Ultimately you could look from the side of my bench,” Leonardi said. “The facial expressions of the athletes that we’re facing, you could tell that once we locked in defensively they really struggled to move the ball and create opportunities to score.”
Junior defenders Emily Ritner and Sofie Pontré also shined in the game. Ritner had the most difficult matchups of the game, guarding the team’s finisher. In addition to her strong defense, where she tallied one steal, she added two goals on offense. As the center defender, Pontré guards the best weapons and does all the team’s dirty work. Pontré scored one goal and added one steal defensively.
“(Emily) really came out of her shell and really grew this game,” Heidi, her sister, said. “I’m super proud of her. She had some big blocks on defense and some big goals on offense so she really helped us with the W.”
Added Leonardi: “Those two positions, if you can lock people down and contain them, then that’s a win in itself.”