The winningest program in the modern era of college water polo doesn’t have much of a postseason résumé.
Despite being the first team to reach 300 wins last weekend, Michigan has never won an NCAA Tournament. In recent years, it hasn’t even survived the first round.
In 2008, the Wolverines lost 12-3 to No. 2 USC. The following postseason, they were knocked out 13-6 by No. 3 UCLA. Last year didn’t go much better, as they fell again to No. 4 Cal, 12-8.
It’s no rocket science to figure out there’s a pattern here. The trick is figuring out how to change it.
It’s not a lack of talent. Michigan coach Matt Anderson recruits well nationally and is able to out-compete California schools to draw more than half of his team from the recruiting hotbed state. The Wolverines have produced 21 All-Americans, and several former players have gone on to pursue professional careers in water polo, including one Olympian in Betsey Armstrong.
It’s not the coaching, either. Anderson has been honored as Coach of the Year by the Collegiate Water Polo Association three times in his nine-year tenure at Michigan. His record is 254-93, and his Wolverines have made it a habit of beating top-10 teams regularly.
So what’s the missing ingredient?
Anderson thinks it’s a lack of stamina. For some reason, the team tends to lose focus and intensity as the season wears on. Michigan goes through the motions in conference play, beats Indiana to win the division championship, but then comes out flat for the NCAA Tournament.
“We have a long season,” Anderson said. “Especially with your group of seniors, they do the same thing four years in a row. It’s like you eat the same breakfast four years in a row every day, and eventually you’re going to get bored of it.”
Anderson doesn’t want that to happen again, not with the amount of talent and experience that has returned to the team. This year, he devised a way to give his players a mid-season jolt of energy.
He took them to Colorado Springs for their spring workout — a mile above sea level, where even going through the motions would be difficult.
“I wanted to prove to them that they can push themselves harder and accomplish something their senior year,” Anderson said. “(I wanted to get them) motivated to realize how well they could do the rest of the season.”
The Wolverines spent the week of spring training at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center. It’s one of three official training facilities for U.S. Olympic athletes, and its housing complex is currently home to nearly 100 athletes training for the 2012 Olympics.
The players’ daily schedules were slotted with numerous pool workouts and gym exercises. Between 7:30 a.m. and lunch, there was breakfast, a video session, a three-hour pool practice and an intense gym circuit where, according to junior Meagan Cobb, the players “threw tires and swung hammers and did crazy things.”
Team-building activities were in the afternoon, and after dinner, the players capped off the night with another three-hour pool practice.
“We had maybe a half hour to rest,” Cobb said.
At the end of the week, Anderson upped the ante. Literally.
He made his players climb the Manitou Incline, a mile-long ascent at a 40-degree angle that was paved with unused railroad ties. Some of the seniors likened it to climbing a mile of stairs.
Though they didn’t have to, most of the team finished the hike by sprinting back down. Maybe it was the thin air, or maybe it was fatigue, but Cobb said it seemed like a good idea at the time.
The day ended with two full pool practices.
“(We did it) at the end of the week when they were really starting to feel tired and worn out,” Anderson said. “I used to live there, so I knew of (the Manitou Incline), and our strength coach really encouraged us to do it.
“The resounding comment from all of them was that this was the hardest thing they’d ever done, and they liked it.”
Three weeks later, Anderson’s plan appears to have worked. Practices seem tighter, and spirits seem higher. Players look as if they are playing through the end of each practice with as much intensity as they would a real game.
“It was a mental challenge and a physical challenge,” Cobb said. “After the high altitude training, at first we were a little tired, but we’re getting back to full strength. We feel strong and confident going into the next part of the season.”
Senior Lauren Orth wants the team to take the momentum all the way to the NCAA Tournament, where she and her fellow seniors have made three consecutive appearances.
The three consecutive first-round losses are still fresh on her mind.
“Making it is always an accomplishment, but we want to do more than just make it,” Orth said. “We want to place higher than we have before and even try for the championship game.
“I want us to be the winningest class that’s ever been at Michigan.”