Approximately 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles, the city of Santa Barbara lies indolently in the rain shadow of the Santa Ynez mountains. There the sun shines 300 sunny days a year, January temperatures drop down to the 60s, and the beach is the longest stretch of east-west shoreline that isn’t on the Gulf of Mexico.
The school there takes a lot of pride in its aquatic sports. Its women’s water polo team owns a cool 7-0 all-time record against Michigan, and they hosted the seventh-ranked Wolverines this weekend looking to add an eighth victory to that record.
But they couldn’t.
After losing to the No. 1 team in the country the previous week, the Michigan women’s water polo team bounced back in impressive fashion to sweep all six of its games at the UC Santa Barbara Winter Invitational tournament, beating the home team in the first game and then four other nationally ranked California teams along the way.
“It’s kind of unbelievable for Michigan, a midwestern team, to fly out to the West Coast and play six games in a row and go undefeated,” said senior Lauren Orth, who is from Poway, California. “I don’t think we’ve ever gone undefeated in California before.”
The first game against the 12th-ranked Gauchos was the toughest, lasting seven periods. The Wolverines trailed UCSB 6-5 into the fourth period until freshman Audrey Pratt scored the equalizer. The two teams then traded points for three overtime periods until senior Keller Felt drew a foul on a breakaway during sudden death. Orth’s penalty shot found the back of the cage and sealed Michigan’s 12-11 victory.
The triple overtime win against the Gauchos provided enough momentum to propel the Wolverines through the rest of the tournament. Michigan beat Concordia 12-6, No. 13 UC San Diego 11-8, No. 10 UC Irvine 13-11, No. 11 San Diego State 12-11, and capped off the weekend with an easy 15-4 victory over No. 20 Cal State Bakersfield.
“I always believe the most important game of the tournament is not only the first game but also if you’re playing the home team, because beating the home team is that much tougher,” Michigan coach Matt Anderson said. “So right then it’s like, ‘OK, the rest of the tournament’s going to be tough, but we did beat the home team and win the first game, so let’s keep on rolling.’”
Anderson kept a constant rotation in the lineup to help the players stave off fatigue, which allowed several freshmen to earn meaningful playing time. Kelsey Nolan, Lauren Dudley, and Sophie Hoegh each registered multiple goals throughout the tournament. The schedule was so grueling that Anderson had junior Morgan Turner and sophomore Alex Adamson split time at goalie, which is an uncommon decision for him.
“Six games would be a lot for either goalie to do, (plus) six games in the sun, it’s going to wear you out,” Anderson said. “I didn’t want to burn the goalies out.”
The biggest surprise of the weekend was the breakout performance of senior Ryley Plunkett, who had a personal best five goals over the course of the tournament. She tallied a hat trick against UC San Diego and scored a point against both UC Irvine and San Diego State. She misfired on only one of her attempts.
“Ryley just dominated this weekend,” Anderson said. “I think she had 12 goals last year and she had (five) this weekend alone. She’s so good defensively, it’s unheard of for her to all of a sudden decide to become such an offensive force. The girls were excited when she was stepping up and scoring. It really did energize everybody.”
Plunkett credited her performance to a team effort.
“I think a lot of my teammates were helping out,” she said. “They were opening up a lot of opportunities (for me), and I took them when they presented themselves.”