BLOOMINGTON — It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
As the Michigan water polo team formed up frantically while the final seconds of the fourth quarter hemorrhaged into oblivion, I experienced déjà vu. I felt like I was watching Super Bowl XLII when Tom Brady heaved his final Hail Mary to Randy Moss.
If you’re a New England fan, you remember — broken-up pass, turnover on downs, game over. Perfect season ruined.
Like the 17-0 Patriots prior to that Super Bowl, the Wolverines had as exceptional a run as they could ask for. They weren’t undefeated, but after a few early losses to some elite California teams, they went on to sweep the rest of their regular-season schedule, clearing a 20-game swath of ranked opponents, division foes and Indiana.
To those who follow college water polo, Michigan’s accomplishment was great, but it wasn’t a huge surprise. As much as the sport is “California and everyone else,” it’s also “Michigan and everyone else who isn’t California.” The Wolverines simply don’t lose in Eastern Standard Time, but no season underscored that fact like this one did.
What made it so special was the roster.
Matt Anderson’s team has never been stacked with so many superlatives. Alison Mantel was the most complete offensive player he said he’s ever coached. Lauren Orth was the most consistent. Keller Felt was the fastest, and Sarah Roberts the most experienced. All the stars, upperclassmen or not, had their own niche.
Even in the pair of starting-caliber goalies, Michigan had the best passer in the league and more depth at the position than any team it has faced.
With a juggernaut of a depth chart, the wins kept piling up. Success began to seem easy and habitual. Anderson may say that he and his players take their schedule one game at a time, but let’s be honest — after the first Indiana game everyone was already looking ahead to May 13, when the Wolverines would surely take to Canham Natatorium and play for that elusive first-round NCAA Tournament win.
Why not? That was the plan all along. That was why they spent their spring break in Colorado, climbing mountains and hurling rubber tires in the thin air. That was what Orth was talking about back in February when she said she wanted her class to be the winningest class in Michigan history and finally beat a California team in the first bracket. Whether they would get there in the first place was never a question.
But then everything went wrong on Sunday.
If the last minute of the game felt like the end of Superbowl XLII, watching first 31 minutes was like watching overtime between Michigan and Minnesota-Duluth in the Frozen Four final this year. Or the second half of the Butler-UCONN basketball championship if you were pulling for the fairy-tale finish.
The Wolverines just played like the worse team.
Mantel’s shots all went wide, and she eventually stopped shooting. Orth didn’t register an assist or a score, bringing her point-streak to a halt at 42 games (still good for second-longest in program history, but if only …). Roberts heard the announcer call her name only once — on an ejection. Alex Adamson missed a lob-pass so badly it nearly smacked a Hoosier in the face.
When Felt lost the fourth-quarter sprint, I turned off my camera.
A lot of credit goes to the Hoosiers. Having existed in Michigan’s shadow since all its players were still in high school, Indiana was a team that desperately wanted the win. They said a month ago that their regular-season loss to the Wolverines had “lit a fire” under them. They weren’t kidding.
How else could a young 11-loss team take down a veteran four-loss team?
The Hoosiers stymied the Wolverines’ speed advantage. They controlled the hole on both offense and defense. They drew quick whistles from the referees, knowing that Michigan was going to play them aggressively.
Indiana’s strategy was no secret. Even their fans — officially still the worst in my book after yelling, “Break his leg!” last October when football’s Denard Robinson burned their secondary for about a mile and then, “She can’t see!” on Saturday during their semifinal when Hartwick’s goalie played with a scratched cornea — were in on the gameplan.
Most of them, at least. After the awards ceremony, one Hoosier staffer sauntered over and asked, “So was us beating Michigan a big deal or something?”
Yes. It was.
But there is a brighter ending to this tale.
As Anderson said to his players after the game, one loss can end a season, but it shouldn’t define the Michigan team or its legacy. For those of you who have no idea what water polo has been up to in the last several seasons (admit it, that’s most of you), here’s a mini crash course:
Since 2008 —
In division: 22-0, four titles
In conference: 77-2, three titles
Against ranked opponents: 49-33
Overall: 134-33 (.802), with three consecutive NCAA appearances, finishing sixth, fifth, and sixth
Against Indiana: 9-1
Incidentally, Orth should be happy to note that the 2011 graduates are, in fact, the winningest class in Michigan history.
No matter how you look at it, that’s a lot of success for a team few people care about in a sport few people know about. Especially since opposing teams do care and do know every last detail about the Wolverines in a relentless effort to bring them down — details that range from how Anderson rotates his goalies to where Mantel likes to take her shots.
After the gritty win over Maryland on Saturday, I asked Adamson whether it was difficult having to face the same teams multiple times a season, knowing that Michigan would be the red-letter game for most of these opponents.
She didn’t have to think hard for an answer.
“You come to Michigan with an understanding that the block ‘M’ is the biggest target you can wear in sports,” Adamson said. “We want to have that target (on our back). We’re proud to wear it, and we want to win in it.”
So the loss to Indiana on Sunday stings. It stings mostly because it means that Cara Reitz, Ryley Plunkett, Mantel, Orth, Roberts and Felt will never play another game in a maize and blue uniform. With their departure as Michigan’s most dominant group ever, the Wolverines appear imminently vulnerable. They’ll finally have a down year trying to replace all their weapons, and the division and conference titles will be open for anyone to claim.
As an official in the Athletic Department told me, that’s what other teams predict every year, but every year they get disappointed.
Michigan doesn’t go down. It only reloads.