Meet Michigan’s Big Ten champion men’s club water polo team.
Led by senior captains Kenichi Osawa, Benjamin Hubbard and Patrick Trabert, the Wolverines finished their season with a Big Ten title and a ninth-place finish at Nationals this past weekend in Atlanta.
The team started the season without knowing much about its new coach, but it was clear by the end that Michigan had landed a gem. Long-time Ann Arbor native Tony Anderson led the ninth-ranked Wolverines to a 7-1 regular-season record and their first conference championship in seven years.
“(Anderson) fits the personality of the team really well,” said senior Matthew Woelfel. “He’s a great guy and the team dynamic is very friendly. It’s a lot of fun, but we do a lot of serious work at the same time.”
Added Osawa: “It’s been a good adjustment, a good change, kind of like a breath of fresh air. We’ve been able to work really closely with Coach and develop strategies and plans for games that really fit the personnel that we have on our team.”
The change wasn’t all easy, but after a slow start Michigan moved in the right direction. With important wins over Indiana and Michigan State, the Wolverines put themselves in prime position to win the Big Ten Tournament.
“Over the last two tournaments, we really came together and played some really good water polo, which led us to winning the No. 1 seed for the Big Ten Tournament,” Woelfel said. “That guarantees (a) spot to go to Nationals, which is really what we’re working for.”
For the last three years, the team placed second in the conference tournament.
“As a senior, it has been really frustrating,” Woelfel said.
He wasn’t the only one frustrated. Michigan returned five seniors, making it hungrier than ever for a coveted spot at Nationals. And with a new coach and a talented veteran roster, the Wolverines were as poised as ever to win back the Big Ten title.
The tournament began and ended in dramatic fashion. After opening with an 8-7 overtime victory against Illinois, Michigan beat Purdue 8-5 before meeting the Spartans in the finals for the third consecutive year. Michigan State had claimed the past six Big Ten championships, but Anderson’s team wasn’t going to let it become seven.
After a back-and-forth battle, freshman Michael Abell-Venit scored the winning goal with just 30 seconds to play, putting Michigan past the Spartans 8-7 and ending Michigan State’s reign.
“The Michigan State game was just an unbelievable feeling to win, and at the same time a relief to finally get over the hump,” Woelfel said.
After the thrilling victory over their rivals, the Wolverines had little time to rest before Nationals. Entering as a No. 3 seed, Michigan lost its opening game against Columbia before defeating St. Louis and Villanova.
On Sunday, the Wolverines ended their season with a victory against No. 10 Oregon in the ninth-place game.
Michigan has a lot to look forward to under the leadership of Anderson. But the Wolverines will have a lot to overcome with the graduation of five seniors and their three captains.
“They really set the tone and did a really good job of keeping us steady and getting us hyped up for practice and games,” Woelfel said of the captains. “(They) make us work hard and have been really great.”
Michigan will look to its talented crop of juniors — Kevin Jensen, Ray Viviano, and Sam Rosen — to lead the team next year.
“There is a lot of leadership,” Osawa said. “There are a lot of exciting opportunities ahead for this team.”