The Michigan women’s water polo team spent most of St. Patrick’s day drinking.
Water, that is.
Their game against archrival Indiana is more than a week away, but the Wolverines are already in battle mode.
“The sleep they get, the proper eating, and the hydration begins now,” Michigan coach Matt Anderson said Wednesday. “It doesn’t begin two days before the game.”
The Hoosiers and Michigan are rivals only in water polo ⎯ they’re the lone Big Ten programs at the varsity level ⎯ but Anderson takes it as seriously as any. He doesn’t allow the color red to be worn on the pool deck. He refers to Indiana as “that school down south.” He has the date circled on the calendar, and it’s the only game on the schedule he ever knows off the top of his head.
“In water polo, you have three rivalries that are the best in the nation,” Anderson said. “You have UCLA-USC, you have Stanford-Cal, and you have Michigan-Indiana. Those are the three games you want to see whether you’re a coach or a fan.”
The fact that Anderson was once an assistant to Indiana coach Barry King only raises the stakes.
History between the teams gives this year’s matchup, which will be televised on the Big Ten Network, more intrigue than usual. The Wolverines are 26-6-1 all time against the Hoosiers, and the current senior class has never lost to them. It’s a lopsided record at a glance, but a closer look shows Indiana pulling closer and closer every year.
In 2009 and 2010, the two teams met six times. Michigan won every game, but by no more than two points each.
“Last year they were fighting until the last minute,” said senior Alison Mantel.
Though the 13th-ranked Hoosiers are only 10-9, they’re a team on the upswing. They’ve won eight of their last nine games, with their only loss in that stretch coming from No. 4 Hawaii, a team they battled to a final score of 3-2. They should have plenty of swagger going into the game against the Wolverines, where they will be looking for an opportunity to ruin the Michigan seniors’ perfect record against them.
It could be their last chance. Because of changes to league tournament scheduling, it’s possible that the two teams will face off only once this season.
Anderson doesn’t want his players to even think about a rematch.
“You have to approach this as your last game against Indiana,” he said. “You may never play them again, so why not try to make your last game your best game?”
If Anderson has a specific game plan in mind for this be-all end-all of games, he won’t say. He also won’t admit to having any pre-Indiana rituals because “it’s not anything for anybody to try and disrupt, so I’m not going to tell anybody.” Even though he maintains that he doesn’t care if anyone knows his strategy for beating the Hoosiers, he’s keeping everything close to the chest.
“We have to play to our strengths,” Anderson said.
Which means what?
“Our way is always ⎯ doing something to win the game.”
Anderson is tweaking his plays in practice, so he’s definitely up to “something.” The low-scoring, defense-oriented games of seasons past must have prompted him to devise ways to throw the Indiana defense off balance.
“It doesn’t have to work every time,” Anderson said to the team after they rehearsed a new attack pattern. “But if it works once and we score a goal, that may be 25 percent of the goals we need to win.”
Despite the offensive scheming, Mantel, the team’s most prolific scorer, acknowledges that the offense usually takes a back seat against the Hoosiers.
“I think we have a very good offensive team, but I think once we really push it defensively, that’s when we’ll be able to get (an advantage),” she said.
Anderson has counseled his team not to worry if their scoring is lower than usual. Even if they do score a lot of goals, he plans to compliment them only on their defensive effort. He just wants them to score enough goals to win the game.
But going into what may be the seniors’ last game ever against Indiana, the pressure is on for Mantel and her compatriots to do more than just that. They must be ready to impose their will on the Hoosiers, even if the contest starts getting bloody.
“We’re out there trying to physically overcome them, so it can be very intense,” Mantel said. “I’m sure (junior Meagan Cobb) has had some good war wounds from those games.”
Cobb, who says her first Indiana game opened up her eyes to a true definition of the word “rivalry,” has sustained more than her fair share of bruises and even a few cuts. The pre-game nail checks don’t seem quite as effective at dulling the heated emotions.
That said, Cobb doesn’t “hate” the Hoosiers.
But she has taken it upon herself and the other captains this year to make sure the team understands the gravity of the rivalry.
“(The game) is important for a lot of reasons, not just for the fact that it’s Indiana, but for the fact that the seniors are undefeated against them, and the fact that if we beat them, they’ll have a tougher road to the finals,” she said. “We’re going to meet before the game and talk about why this is important. We’re definitely going to let the freshmen know.”
Anderson, who’ll analyze and reanalyze the competition right up to the buzzer, will likely be relieved more than anything when it’s all over. His team will be, too. You can tell he’s edgier than usual. He’s less patient. He gets frustrated more easily and yells at his players for minor mistakes in practice.
It’s probably because he won’t be getting much sleep for the next week and a half.
“I wish every game was as intense as Indiana, but if every game was as intense as Indiana, I’d have a lot less hair,” he said.
“You can’t ask your football players to play Ohio State ten times a year, just like we can’t ask Michigan and Indiana to play ten times a year in water polo.”