Some goals win games.
When Michigan senior Alison Mantel held the ball with less than two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter against Princeton earlier this month, the Wolverines were tied with the Tigers, 10-10.
It wasn’t an optimistic tie. Michigan had blown a 6-2 first-quarter lead and barely managed to recover from a two-point deficit. The team had scored just three goals in the last two-and-a-half quarters.
Mantel quickly scanned the pool. The Wolverines were on the counterattack, and she saw that her teammates had stayed true to their lanes. All the Tiger defenders were occupied, trying to account for the players closest to the cage, which meant one thing: she was open.
Mantel took the shot.
Within milliseconds, the ball struck the back corner of the cage with a thwock. Point, Michigan. The senior’s only goal of the game would be all the team needed. While concentrating on defense and bleeding time off the clock in the remaining seconds, the Wolverines would go on to score once more.
But that goal, as they say, would only be insurance.
Some goals rewrite the record book.
The moment the ball left Mantel’s hand, it was on its way to making her just the third player in Michigan history reach 200 goals in her career, putting her on an elite plateau with Shana Welch and Julie Hyrne. But that wasn’t all. With her 200th goal, Mantel breached even more exclusive territory ⎯ the 100-200-300 assists-goals-points club.
Current membership: Mantel and Hyrne.
“I would expect Alison to definitely be a member of that group,” Michigan coach Matt Anderson said several weeks ago when asked about the record. “She’s a complete offensive player. That shows how well-rounded you are, to hit that category in assists and goals. It’s quite an accomplishment.”
Career numbers like Mantel’s are different from single-game records or even single-season records. Those are easier to come by, and the names change every other season. Anyone can have a stand-out game. Given the right role and the right supporting cast, anyone can have a stand-out season, too.
But to perform at such a high level consistently for four years in a row is another story. In each of the past three seasons, Mantel has broken the top three in almost every offensive category.
That kind of accomplishment requires a special kind of athlete.
“I think that a good portion of (Mantel’s) shooting, probably 75 percent, is natural talent, meaning she obviously has a strong arm and has the flexibility to be a good shooter,” Anderson said. “Everything else ⎯ her mental composure, her finishing and her variety of shots ⎯ she’s worked for that.”
Anderson added that it’s not just effort, either. It’s also attitude.
“During practice, when everybody else is just going through the motions and warming up, Alison is working like it’s a game,” Anderson said. “She takes a shot in practice and she analyzes it as if it were a sudden death shot against Indiana.
“A lot of people have talent. There are people out there more talented than Alison, but there’s not one person that is more of a studious worker than she is, and that’s why she’s on her way to being a three-time All-American.”
It’s also why “Magic,” the nickname Mantel got from assistant coach Katie Card during her freshman year, is somewhat of a misnomer.
There’s no trick behind all her success. She earns it the old-fashioned way.
Some goals redeem struggling players.
It’s hard to picture the soft-spoken Mantel, who fidgets shyly and brushes her bangs out of her eyes when she talks, without her characteristic demure smile.
But when Mantel entered the Princeton game during the second half, she was pissed off.
The first half of the game hadn’t gone well for Mantel. She had missed shots and made mistakes only an inexperienced freshman would make ⎯ mistakes unbefitting of the team’s senior offensive star. She played so poorly she was pulled from the game in the second quarter.
Anderson didn’t mince words on deck.
“Matt said some things to me that kind of got me angry,” Mantel recalled. “(He said) what coaches need to say to players to get them refocused.”
Anderson’s words hit home. Driven by a renewed intensity, Mantel was able to contribute at her usual high level. With the help of sophomore Kiki Golden, she propelled the team back into the lead.
If there had been a visible change in the way Mantel played, however, you probably wouldn’t have spotted it. A quiet player who Anderson describes as an implicit leader, Mantel often goes unnoticed until she scores.
“Alison is not one to draw attention to herself,” Anderson said. “It goes back to her mental fortitude. She’s not one to lose focus. She’s listening intently to make sure she hears everything correctly. She’s thinking intently to see what the next option should be if what she wants to do is stopped.
“That’s why she’s as complete a player as I’ll ever have, because she’s always thinking and always listening to try and find what the next thing should be.”
Some goals are cosmically preordained.
Sunday was Princeton’s Senior Night, and a large crowd stood beneath the orange rafters at Denunzio Pool to cheer on the Tigers’ seniors. This was a class that had accumulated two 20-win seasons in 2008 and 2010 and was looking to repeat as conference champions in the CWPA Southern Division.
Princeton had crushed Bucknell on Saturday, and the team’s emotions ran high as the players sought to pay tribute to their six seniors by upsetting the seventh-ranked Wolverines.
What the Tigers probably didn’t know was that the player who obliterated their hopes with her fourth-quarter goal was close ⎯ really close ⎯ to being their seventh senior.
“Alison and I talked about that last week, about in eight grade, when I first saw her at a camp, she was wearing a Princeton sweatshirt,” Anderson recalled. “I told her then, ‘You’re not going to Princeton, so you might want to get rid of that sweatshirt.’
“It is ironic that her 200th goal was against the school that she was mistakenly brainwashed into wanting to go to when she was in eighth grade.”
Had Anderson not been present at the camp, Mantel may have ended up a Tiger. Or a Stanford Cardinal. Either way, she certainly would not have been a Wolverine.
“I had been to camp at Princeton and Stanford,” Mantel said. “I had never heard of Michigan water polo before, so (Anderson) being at the camp was my first introduction to Michigan.”
But some things are just meant to be. The Florida native eventually learned more about Ann Arbor and fell in love with the school and the team. She became the star of a group of seniors that has never lost to archrival Indiana and is set to become the winningest class in the winningest water polo program.
And after going scoreless for three quarters, she scored her 200th goal to secure a comeback win against the school she nearly attended.
Some goals are magic.