To all opposing teams that won’t know until game time which of the two starting Michigan water polo goalkeepers they’re going to have to face:
Don’t feel too bad. Morgan Turner won’t know either.
For the Wolverines this season, it’s all about the element of surprise. With junior Turner and her sophomore counterpart Alex Adamson on the roster, Michigan coach Matt Anderson has two capable goalies, each with different playing styles. He splits their starting time in order to keep opponents guessing, making them pay if they gameplan against the wrong one.
“Teams don’t know who’s going to start,” Anderson said Wednesday. “That’s a huge advantage.”
Because they’re so different, Anderson has spent a lot of time over the past couple seasons figuring out how to use the two goalies. Adamson is one of the league’s best passers. With one pinpoint toss across the pool, she can convert a stop into a swift counterattack against an aggressive offense.
Turner is smaller and faster. She swims out of the cage regularly to steal possessions from teams who play too conservatively. She also excels at blocking shots from teams with fixed formations, whereas Adamson is vocal when coordinating defenders and adjusts easily against teams who show multiple offensive fronts.
Even their physical talents are different.
“I’m quick, but mostly from strength,” Adamson said. “Morgan is much more agile. I’m more muscle and power.”
Crucial to Anderson’s overall strategy, however, is a small but important detail about Turner.
“Morgan is better not knowing that she’s going to play,” Anderson said.
His pre-tournament routine with his team goes something like this: During the week, he’ll have both goalies prepare for all the teams. A few days before the tournament, he’ll go over individual game plans, but he’ll only inform Adamson which games he wants her to start in. Turner usually finds out moments before the swim off.
“I generally talk to Alex about it because she can go through her steps to prepare better,” Anderson said. “I’ll say, ‘Alex these are the games I’m planning on having you start.’ And then I’ll just now tell Morgan, ‘You’re starting this game.’
“It wasn’t my plan, but it’s fortunately what I’ve kind of figured out. Morgan plays better when she doesn’t know what’s going on.”
As the player who holds the program’s second-best career save percentage (.608) and goals-against average (5.91), Turner said it all comes down to the adrenaline. She likes performing under pressure, and she doesn’t like to overthink, so the adrenaline rush that accompanies pressure or uncertainty helps her focus on simply getting the job done.
“I just don’t think about it,” Turner said. “I’m like, ‘Okay, this is essential, I need to do well, so just do it.’ It’s not like ‘I’m going to be starting this game, what should I do to win?’ I’m just going to do it, and it happens.”
Her weakness, she admitted, is playing in games that lack those elements.
“When I know I’m going to be in a game where we know we’re going to win or we’re expected to win, it’s really hard to get the intensity up,” she said.
Though she has been in the dark for much of her Michigan career as a result, Turner doesn’t mind. She’s used to it. Even her first collegiate start during her freshman year followed the same script, when she was thrust into action against then-No. 20 Maryland.
“Brittany (May) was actually supposed to start,” Turner recalled. “And then at the last minute, after we were done warming up right before the game was supposed to start, Coach was like, ‘Mo T., you’re starting.’ And I was like ‘Whoa, okay, cool.’ It was a good game, but it wasn’t a perfect game. There were a few shots I should have blocked.”
She ended up with 17 blocks. The only player to register more than that in a single game at Michigan was named Betsey Armstrong, who has since led a US Olympic water polo team to a gold medal.
Turner may not be in the dark much longer. As the team heads into conference play in the coming weeks, Anderson said that he is likely to name a clear starter, as he has done in the past. But even then, he knows that both goalies will be used often.
“It’s a long season for one goalie to play four games in a row or six games in a row,” Anderson said. “The goalie position is the strength of our team. I have two starting goalies. It’s allowing us to play better. It doesn’t matter who we play, because I’m confident, and the team’s confident.”
Adamson said she’s not worried about playing time, and the competition between her and Turner is friendly. If anything, it helps them both improve.
“My job is to make her better and her job is to make me better,” Adamson said, “and we’ll make ourselves better by doing that. We both have to be playing well for this team to be successful. Goalies have on days and off days, so it’s good to know that one of us can be off because the other one’s going to be on.”
But what if both goalies are having off days?
“I don’t think that’s happened yet,” Adamson said.