After cruising through the Eastern Conference unbeaten with a previous record of 18-0-1, the No. 14 Michigan water polo team collided with its first obstacle on the road to the NCAA Championships No. 15 Princeton.
The Wolverines (19-10-1) met the Tigers Saturday for the third time this season after winning the first two matches by counts of 8-4 and 9-8. But this time around, the stakes were higher as the Southern Division Championship and top seed in the Eastern Conference Championships were on the line.
Princeton dominated the championship game, winning by a comfortable margin of 11-5, and will enter the Eastern Championships in three weeks as the team to beat.
“We didn”t play to our potential,” utility player Abbi Rowe said. “We have a lot of talent, but we just weren”t able to execute together.”
This past weekend”s championship was Michigan”s first postseason competition as a varsity program, putting the inexperienced Wolverines at an immediate disadvantage against Princeton”s more established program.
“We were a little bit nervous when we went into the game against Princeton,” captain Melissa Karjala said. “It was the final game, and a lot of people did things that they weren”t used to doing. People tried to overstep their roles. It got messy we were confused.”
The Tigers shocked the Wolverines with their physical play, forcing Michigan out of its game much like Massachusetts did two weekends before. Within the first five minutes of the game, a Princeton player was kicked out of the game for punching Rowe in the face.
“They were playing really physical overall,” Rowe said. “It was back and forth, and once we got down, we couldn”t pick ourselves back up. We just weren”t playing together. It was really hard to focus.”
In Michigan”s 9-8 victory over Princeton on Feb. 25, the Wolverines” shooting was on fire. But on Saturday, Michigan couldn”t muster any offensive punch to keep up with the Tigers. The Wolverines, who normally take advantage of their power play opportunities, were stagnant even with the one-woman advantage.
“Bottom line Princeton put their shots in and we didn”t,” Michigan coach Amber Drury-Pinto said. “We had plenty of opportunities to put the ball in the net and we didn”t. Our power plays probably let us down the most.”
Another key to Princeton”s success against the Wolverines was the play of its two-meter Adele McCarthy-Beauvais, who dominated Michigan defenders in front of the net. She scored a whopping six goals to lead the Tigers, who were a step above their competition all weekend.
“We really knew what to expect, but Beauvais had a great game and a great tournament,” Drury-Pinto said. “We didn”t stop her. You have to give the credit to (Princeton). They played really well the whole way through.”
Michigan has played a relatively easy schedule this season, which can be explained mostly by its location in the Midwest. The Wolverines” only good competition in the region comes from Indiana, who is not an elite opponent. Because of their schedule, the Wolverines are not as prepared as they should be for quality opponents like Princeton.
“We can”t get good competition (consistently),” Drury-Pinto said. “Yeah we were on a roll, but we were playing teams that we were beating 17-5. We need to structure things a little bit differently to get more competition in the end.”
Even though Michigan experienced its first defeat in Eastern Conference play with its loss to Princeton, the Wolverines did qualify for the Eastern Conference Championships in Providence, R.I. Michigan tallied three convincing wins this weekend against Bucknell, Grove City, and George Washington, earning a second place finish in the Southern Division.