Michigan boasts the winningest women’s water polo program.
If it wins out this weekend at the Wolverine Invitational Tournament, it will become the first team in the modern era of college water polo to reach 300 wins.
But Michigan coach Matt Anderson doesn’t seem to care. He doesn’t have a play-by-play strategy outlined for the tournament. He doesn’t have a speech planned for Sunday after the game against Iona. He didn’t even know about the 300-win mark until he went online a few days ago.
“Like I told my girls today, you guys should occasionally look at our webpage,” Anderson said. “But that’s not anything that I remember. I don’t keep track of that stuff.”
Off the top of his head, there are really only a couple of key points to the weekend that he can name.
“Maryland is in our conference, so we need to win that game,” Anderson said. “It comes down to a seeding game for NCAA’s, not only for us, but for our conference.
“It’s also an opportunity for some of the girls who don’t get a lot of playing time but should.”
For Anderson, achievements like being the first program to 300 wins are things to be discussed at the end of the season. He thinks only about what the team needs to do today, tomorrow, and if there’s a tournament coming up, he’ll think about the weekend. He doesn’t plan any further than that. He can’t even tell you which games remain on the schedule.
“Except for Indiana,” Anderson said. “I always know when that game is.”
As quirky as it seems, Anderson’s myopia has a lot to do with why the team is all of a sudden within splashing range of its 300th win. It’s ingrained in his coaching philosophy, and he uses it to ward off distractions, promote teamwork and to prevent the team from resting prematurely on its laurels.
Two of his seniors – Alison Mantel and Lauren Orth – are currently making their way into the record books, but even they can each admit to only having cursory thoughts about their accomplishments. Mantel is 14 goals shy of a career 100-assist, 200-goal, and 300-total points record, and Orth is on a 22-game point streak.
“I haven’t really thought about it, I have to say, because when you’re out there you score because your teammates set you up,” Mantel said. “You pass the ball because your teammates are open. I think it’s a great accomplishment because only one other person has done it, but it’s not something that’s always in my mind. It’s just something that comes with the game, when my teammates are open or I’m open, just have to take the shot.”
For Michigan, success is not only a team business, but also simply business as usual. Most coaches will ascribe to this philosophy at some level, but Anderson knows that cultivating this attitude is actually the toughest part of his job.
“To me, it’s easy to go from not being a good program to being a good program,” Anderson said. “It’s harder, though, to stay a good program and become a very good program, and most of that is the mental focus. (The players) need to be taught that it’s harder to continue to win.”
Which is why for spring break this year, Anderson decided to take his team to Colorado Springs for an unconventional midseason workout. A mile above sea level, the thin air was a literal reminder to the Wolverines of how hard it is to stay at the top.
“The altitude training was horrible because you feel like you’re breathing through a straw,” Orth said. “But maybe it’ll help us later in the season and maintain our stamina and let us come out strong at the tournament.”
The week was grueling. Most of the workout involved drills and exercises in the pool. On one day, the team made a hiking trip up the Manitou Incline, a mile-long 40 degree ascent paved only with unused railroad ties. They finished the hike with two pool workouts.
“They didn’t think at the beginning of the week it was going to be what it was, but it was a huge success,” Anderson said. “I’m definitely seeing a change in practice. The key is are we going to see a change in our games? I know 100 percent we will. I don’t believe we will, I know we will.”