Thirty seconds was all it took.
On its opening sprint, the No. 11 Michigan water polo team (7-1 Collegiate Water Polo Association, 32-8 overall) seized control of the ball. Junior attacker Julia Sellers drew a five-meter penalty and found the back of the cage for the first score of the CWPA championship game against No. 10 Princeton (8-0, 23-8).
And with it, the Wolverines seized a lead they wouldn’t relent, as they defeated the Tigers 11-8 to secure their third consecutive conference championship.
Right off the bat in the CWPA Championships — which included a 16-4 win over Brown in the quarterfinals and a 9-5 victory over No. 13 Hartwick in the semifinals before the match against Princeton — Michigan had one mission: score early and let the defense do the rest. It worked. By halftime, the Wolverines had built up leads of 5-1 in the quarterfinal, 4-1 in the semifinal and 8-3 in the championship.
“It allows our bench to play early minutes,” said Michigan coach Marcelo Leonardi. “And it puts a little bit of pressure on the other team to have to keep their starters in, which … will break teams down.”
In each game, the dominance came differently.
On Friday, the Wolverines brought a relentless offensive attack, poking holes in the Bears’ defense until there was nothing left. Senior center Christina O’Beck had five goals and Sellers had four, as Michigan outshot Brown, 35-4.
On Saturday, it was the defense that proved the difference, holding the Hawks to just 1-for-8 on power plays. Sophomore goalkeeper Heidi Ritner made six saves to prevent Hartwick from seriously threatening.
And on Sunday, the Wolverines’ early scoring wore the Tigers down to a pulp. Princeton mounted a comeback in the second half, but by then it was too little, too late. The title had already been won.
“(We were) forcing them to play to our level and play to our speed, which a lot of teams can’t stay with for four quarters,” Sellers said. “… I think the look on Princeton’s face, they knew they were in for a tough game.”
The Tigers had one last opportunity when they earned a 6-on-4 advantage toward the end of the game trailing 11-8. But junior defender Kim Johnson killed off the penalty to seal the win for the Wolverines. It was emblematic of the weekend for Michigan — despite incurring 22 penalties to their opponents’ 10, the Wolverines allowed just five power-play goals.
“On the power plays, defense-wise is where I think we really broke down teams this weekend,” Sellers said. “ … We went back to plays that we ran well, but at the same time kept changing it up so teams weren’t able to adapt to what we were doing.”
Shorthanded and on the man-advantage, on offense and on defense, with starters and with bench players, Michigan was prepared for everything. The Wolverines exploited opponents’ weaknesses while concealing their own.
In the end, the other teams were powerless to stop it and Michigan had its three-peat.
“We’ve faced a lot of adversities this year from injuries, among other things,” Leonardi said. “We felt that this was a culmination and we validated all the hard work and dedication and sacrifice that we made.
“The first championship (two) years ago was exhilarating. The second one, last year, was nice. But this was the hardest championship. … And it means so much more.”