For the No. 11 Michigan water polo team (1-3), the stakes are raised this weekend as it heads to California for three games against top-10 competition. The Wolverines will play No. 1 Stanford on Friday before taking on No. 9 San Jose State and No. 4 California on Saturday.
But the pressure to beat the nation’s most talented teams might be superseded by something else this weekend. There are 15 Michigan players from California on this season’s roster, and Michigan coach Matt Anderson attended San Jose State as an undergraduate. Eight of the California natives come from the Bay Area of Northern California — the same region where this weekend’s top-ranked competitors are located. This weekend is about friends, family and memories for a good chunk of the squad, and many players hope to use that as more motivation against their home state’s highly touted programs.
“Having friends and family there (watching), you want to do well,” said junior attacker Kelsey Nolan. “I’m really excited. I think it will be fun to be in front of everyone, be in my hometown and play outdoors. You don’t get to do much of that here.”
The Golden State is home to seven of the nation’s top 10 teams. Year in and year out, California remains a recruiting goldmine for coaches across the nation.
“Every high school has water polo in California, so they will have a lot more athletes to draw from,” Anderson said. “The hotbed of water polo is an in-state school for most of those girls.”
Anderson’s ties to Northern California surely have him excited for this upcoming weekend, but those connections are also the reason why Michigan can consistently hang with the top talent on the West Coast.
“You establish a lot of your recruiting with any sport in college with your contacts,” Anderson said. “I spent so many years at the high-school level — I have a lot of contacts, and thus we’ve always been Northern California top-heavy in our recruiting.”
All of the Wolverines will be challenged this weekend, to say the least. Stanford boasts a roster with three Olympians from this past summer’s gold-medal team in London — Annika Dries, Melissa Seidemann and Maggie Steffens — as well as the 2012 NCAA player of the year, Kiley Neushul.
“We need to execute,” Anderson said. “We understand who we’re playing. On paper, (Stanford is) the best water polo team ever put together. But we need to make the effort to do the things we want to do, and then we should be able to head home with a victory over a higher-ranked team.”
A good portion of the Bay Area natives will play against former high-school teammates and coaches this weekend, adding a bit of extra fuel and passion to the Michigan sideline. A 1-3 record following last weekend’s Michigan Kick-Off Tournament in Ann Arbor may have left a sour taste in their mouths.
For Nolan and her fellow Californians, this weekend is certainly time to cherish past memories and reminisce with familiar faces. But Anderson says this weekend’s goal is purely to come home with a winning record.
A few wins would be something this team is used to, something comfortable and exciting — reminiscent of a place just like home.