Hawaii interim coach Cindy Rote, whose team topped Michigan 9-6 on Saturday, knows that the outcome could be different the next time the teams meet.

Paul Wong
Michigan co-captain Maribeth Sitkowski attempts to block her opponent”s pass Saturday. The Wolverines went 0-2 against their Western opponents.<br><br>BRENDAN O””DONNELL/Daily

“Michigan is going to be really competitive this year, and next year, they”re only going to get better,” Rote said before the match at the season-opening tournament.

The Wolverines went 2-2 during the two-day event, with wins over both Indiana and Michigan State a club program. The losses to Hawaii and California-Santa Barbara weren”t a huge surprise because the water polo”s power is centered out West where it”s popularity is based.

Last season, eight of Michigan”s 11 losses came against teams from California or Hawaii.

“All the good athletes that Michigan is recruiting are coming out of California,” said Rote. “The sport hasn”t developed enough that it”s throughout the whole United States.”

But the games that Michigan played against the West this weekend were highly competitive. The Wolverines lost by one goal to Santa Barbara, 7-6, and fell by three to Hawaii. Their progress was particularly evident in Saturday”s tight game with Santa Barbara, which finished the tournament 4-0.

“I know last year, when we went out and started playing California teams, we didn”t do as well as we did (today),” said Michigan co-captain Maribeth Sitkowski. “Even though we lost, we were in the game the whole time and we were always with them. To have a game with a one-point difference is a big deal.”

It”s not a surprise that the Wolverines were competitive with the sport”s traditional heavyweights, based on the recruiting class that Michigan coach Amber Drury-Pinto brought in this season. Of the 16 freshmen that joined the team this year, 10 came from California and one from Hawaii.

“California kids are now looking to come here,” said Rote. “And with such a great coach as Amber, things will only get better for Michigan.”

Close games, such as the one against Santa Barbara, can only help the Wolverines in terms of recruiting.

“I think (our success against West Coast teams) is something that the kids look at,” said Drury-Pinto. “The 7-6 game with Santa Barbara was huge.”

Sunday”s loss to Hawaii was a little bit more one-sided than the Santa Barbara game. The Wolverines fought back from an early three-goal deficit with goals from freshmen Casey Kerney who had 10 goals on the weekend and Erin Brown to make the score 3-2 after the first quarter.

But Hawaii rallied over the next two periods to take an 8-5 lead. The Wolverines tried to make things interesting when freshman Meg Knudsten scored on a penalty shot to cut into Hawaii”s three-goal deficit. But the Rainbows responded with one final goal to pull away with five minutes remaining.

Following the 12-6 defeat that Hawaii handed Michigan last year, there were some obvious positives for the Wolverines to take away from yesterday”s loss.

“(We) definitely (made progress),” said Drury-Pinto. “Whenever you lose by less goals, you can say that you did (improve). I think we could have had it a little bit closer, possibly gotten a victory. But, hopefully, we”ll see them again later in the season.”

The most exciting game of the Invitational was Michigan”s 10-9 victory over Indiana in the final game of the weekend. The Wolverines trailed 9-7 entering the fourth quarter before rallying to victory.

Sophomore Julie Nisbet started Michigan”s comeback with a powerful shot to the upper-right corner from four meters out and sophomore Chelsea Kay tied the game on a backhand goal with just a few minutes remaining. To cap off the remarkable rally, junior Stephanie Morse helped the Wolverines take advantage of a 6-on-5 situation by firing a dramatic shot into the lower left corner of the goal with just 14 seconds remaining in the game.

The game marked the sixth time that the Big Ten”s only two varsity teams have met since the beginning of last season. Drury-Pinto finds that the lack of other natural rivalries makes the Indiana game more important to her players.

“We hear so much about Big Ten, and unfortunately we don”t have that. We only have the Collegiate Water Polo Association. So when we do get a chance to have a Big Ten match up, it”s extra important,” Drury-Pinto said.

The Wolverines” success against the best of the CWPA and the progress that they”ve made against the West Coast are strong indications of a promising future.

“I think we”re only going to go further to challenge the top teams,” said freshman goalie Betsy Armstrong.

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