Water polo ends season with third-place finish at CWPA Championship

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By Brad Whipple, Daily Sports Writer
Published April 27, 2014

The NCAA Tournament bid was so close, yet so far for the Michigan water polo team.

After an 11-9 overtime win against No. 5 seed Brown in the quarterfinals Friday, the fourth-seeded Wolverines needed to win the CWPA Championship to earn the bid. But Saturday, No. 1 seed Indiana defeated Michigan, 14-7, in the semifinal to squash any NCAA dreams.

Fighting for a third-place finish, the Wolverines faced No. 3 seed Hartwick on Sunday in a game where both sides continued to exchange the lead until Michigan came out on top, 12-10.

“I feel comfortable saying we were the second-best team,” said Michigan coach Matt Anderson. “From where we were in the beginning of the season to where we are now is 99 percent improvement.

“Two teams are walking away happy today: Us, because we defeated a team that two weeks ago thought they were better than us, and then Indiana.”

Hartwick (6-3 CWPA West, 21-14 overall) caused some trouble for the Wolverines four minutes into the game when freshman goalkeeper Emily Browning went for a steal in front of the net and injured her nose during a scramble, sending her to the hospital with a concussion. As a result, sophomore Julia Campbell spent the rest of the game in the cage and made four saves.

Despite the defensive loss, Michigan (5-5, 21-13) found its rhythm offensively by outracing Hartwick in the counter-attack.

Sophomore driver Ali Thomason’s four-goal performance — her second of the tournament, tying her career best — along with three assists made the win over Hartwick possible. Going into the final frame, the Wolverines held a 9-7 lead, but the Hawks surged ahead with two penalty shots and a power-play goal.

But they didn’t hold onto the narrow lead for long when Thomason netted two goals in 43 seconds. On a breakaway, sophomore driver Presley Pender added an insurance tally and allowed the Wolverines to settle into two and a half minutes of stonewall defense for the victory.

The defense, though, didn’t fall into place the night before against Indiana, to which Michigan had lost three times this season.

Though Michigan’s underclassmen scored a combined nine goals against Brown, Anderson said the squad was like a “deer in headlights” with Indiana. It was left to the senior trio — attackers Hathaway Moore and Kelsey Nolan and driver Audrey Pratt — to carry the team, with Pratt scoring four and Nolan one.

But the Hoosiers outshot the Wolverines 37-29, went 3-for-9 on power plays and took advantage of a few ball mishandles to sink their rival one final time.

“When you’re facing a veteran team, you don’t want to try and come from behind,” Anderson said. “They grabbed the lead because of some of our miscues, and they held onto it.”

Indiana (14-0, 22-5) finished first in the tournament after defeating No. 2 seed Princeton 11-10 in the final, earning the Hoosiers their program’s third berth into the NCAA Tournament.

Meanwhile, the Wolverines’ postseason drought will continue for another season. According to Anderson, his team could have still been a postseason contender if it hadn’t lost the 2013 CWPA Rookie of the Year and sophomore driver Bryce Beckwith to an injury in October.

“This year was a rebuilding year because we didn’t have Bryce,” Anderson said. “If we had her, we’re in a one-goal game with Indiana. That is without a doubt.”

With Beckwith making her long-awaited return next year along with the arrival of new recruits, Anderson hasn’t felt this confident about his team’s future in five years.

“We were horse manure at the start of the season, and we turned it into a vegetable garden,” Anderson said. “Next year, we’re going to be a forest.

“I have no problem saying that teams are going to be chasing Michigan next year.”