For how young his team seemed, for how disappointing its play was in a season-opening loss against an archrival and for how lazy it played, Michigan water polo coach Matt Anderson knew what to say to his team.
In two days spanning the “Michigan Kick-off,” the team’s first tournament of the season, which was hosted in Ann Arbor, Michigan split its four games, dropping both matches against ranked opponents — No. 10 Indiana and No. 3 UCLA — while pummeling Colorado State twice.
It proved a weekend of growth, especially on the defensive end, thanks in large part to Anderson pushing the right buttons at the right time.
By the time Michigan (2-2) led the Rams, 6-1, at halftime on yesterday afternoon, Anderson had his team’s full and undivided attention when he told them, “I don’t care if we score again, but I’m going to be pissed if they score again.”
Colorado State didn’t score, at least not while junior goalie Alex Adamson roamed the net, until the fourth quarter, when Adamson was given a breather with the outcome all but decided.
Saturday, Adamson had been benched. Indiana, who is hated by Michigan in water polo as much as Ohio State is in football, pounced on the lackadaisical Wolverines, and built a 5-1 halftime lead.
Adamson made just two saves and Anderson described it as “worse (a) game she could’ve played against Indiana.”
“Everybody, every now and then, not only (needs) a wakeup, but also it tells the rest of the team, look, he’s going to do that to our backstop, then he’s going to do that to anybody,” Anderson explained.
When that wasn’t enough, and when Anderson saw Adamson’s defensive corps continue to play timid and unorganized, he reasoned with them.
“I can see you thinking and then you want to do it — just do it, then think,” Anderson told his team after the match. “Just physically, you know what to do. See the ball, get the ball and then we’ll go from there.”
Senior goalie Tara Bringham couldn’t avoid a 6-3 loss, but it wouldn’t have mattered. Anderson knew his starter would respond. Adamson earned his trust the first time he’d done this, during her freshman year, when she held her head high on the bench, then shined in her return.
Michigan won its next game, a 17-13 barnburner against Colorado State, and Adamson wasn’t spectacular but, still, neither was her defense. Junior attacker Kiki Golden said their spacing was off, and the young unit — only two of the seven defenders are upperclassmen — failed to work in unison, instead devolving into more one-on-one defense. Again, Anderson saw they were thinking too much.
When the problems persisted, and with the third-ranked Bruins looming, he warned: “Look, we gave up 13 goals and we shouldn’t have given up that many.”
At first, it appeared the message fell upon deaf ears, as Michigan fell behind 6-5 at halftime, then 9-6 by the end of the third. Ultimately, the Wolverines lost 10-8, but they kept it close because Anderson hit home his point; their aggressive defense reined in UCLA, which started taking bad shots, while Michigan choked passing lanes and smothered the ball.
By the Wolverines’ final game Sunday afternoon — a rematch against Colorado State — they had mastered the aggressive defensive style Anderson desired. It’s not quite as physical as the “Neanderthal” origins of the sport (when, Anderson said, players used to “take them under the water and beat them over the head”), or as passive as Michigan played against Indiana.
He likened the “See the ball, get the ball” approach to a full-court trap in basketball, where strategically planned pressure forces mistakes. Like basketball, Anderson said skilled teams can find the open player and convert a “lay-up.”
“(But) very few teams are capable of doing that,” Anderson continued. “And it’s like anything, when someone on defense in a sport is over-aggressive on you, mentally, if you’re not ready for it, you’re going to back down.”
The Rams backed down, settling for low-percentage shots from the perimeter, while Michigan’s offense rode its defense’s momentum. Adamson played masterful, leading teammates with pin-point outlet passes, directing her young defenders with a veteran voice and stonewalling Colorado State with five relatively easy saves.
Adamson described the victory as “just physically dominating them.”
Still, two wins over Colorado State won’t silence Anderson. Before the 10-3 win yesterday went final, Anderson saw a young defenseman misplay a simple formation called the triangle-switch, which is key in his pressure defense.
Easing his team along, Anderson had installed only one offensive and defensive formation, while “trying to do one thing well this tournament that last year’s team did well two years previous.”
Having watched his team take four games to play complete defense, Anderson admitted, “It’s baby steps.”