If a curious fan were to dig into the archives of The Michigan Daily, he would find a small and inconsistent stash of articles about the Michigan water polo team that dates back to the sport’s promotion to varsity status in 2001. The articles are found in sporadic bunches because they are the baby steps of beginning sportswriters. After covering a few games, the reporters presumably quit or moved up the ladder, leaving gaping holes in the history of Michigan water polo.
However, there is one exception, and that is the Indiana game.
In all of the 10 previous varsity seasons, the Daily has covered the rivalry in some capacity. The articles chronicle the evolution of the rivalry as it grew from a small local spat into one of the three biggest rivalries in the entire sport. This year, at the sports section’s weekly meeting, multiple reporters clamored for the right to cover the game.
Something has always been different about this game, and even the most inexperienced of journalists can smell it.
“Are they playing Indiana?” said a fellow reporter. “Because otherwise, it’s not that important.”
The simplest explanation for the rivalry is admittedly accurate. As the only two Big Ten schools with varsity women’s water polo teams, it was expected that the rivalry would develop naturally from the intensity of Big Ten competition in other varsity sports.
But at its foundation, the rivalry began at another level. Since the young Michigan and Indiana programs were heavily populated with local athletes, many players had grown up competing against each other.
For evidence, look no further than the Daily’s preview of one of the 2001 matchups, titled: “Indiana rivalry goes all the way back to the ‘womb’.”
This familiarity has driven the rivalry to its current heights. The teams know each other’s tricks and tendencies. In a matchup like this, rankings can be thrown out the window.
“No matter where the teams are heading into this game, it’s going to be a grind,” said Indiana coach Barry King in a teleconference earlier this week. “Familiarity takes over for talent.”
The closeness kept the rivalry strong even when it was lopsided. When current Michigan coach Matt Anderson switched sides in 2003, leaving a job as King’s assistant to take the head coaching job at Michigan, the Wolverines were undefeated in 11 games against the Hoosiers. Still, that didn’t prevent him from celebrating dramatic win number 12.
“The horn indicating the end of the second overtime quarter had sounded, and Michigan water polo coach Matt Anderson kicked his water bottle into the pool, skipping, and threw his hands up in the air,” began an article covering one Indiana game that year.
The articles reveal that the rivalry has heartbreak on both sides. In 2002, Michigan ended Indiana’s season in a five-overtime slugfest. Three years later, in 2005, Indiana claimed an overtime victory of its own, winning on a sudden-death goal in Ann Arbor.
“(Indiana junior Janus) Pardy lofted the ball in the air. Rotating ever so slightly, it soared over the water, over the outstretched arms of Michigan’s senior goalie Betsey Armstrong and quietly smacked the back of the net. The crowd at Canham Natatorium sat silent and stunned while the Indiana players celebrated,” the game cover said.
After that, Indiana enjoyed a few years of equality, but beginning in 2007, the Wolverines regained control of the rivalry. They went undefeated for nine straight matches. But the intensity of the games only increased. Indiana began to be referred to as “that school down south,” a moniker usually reserved for Ohio State.
When Indiana finally broke through in the Eastern Conference title game last year, it was game-on again. With great pride, the Hoosiers had ended the season of one of Michigan’s most accomplished senior classes far sooner than anyone had expected.
As the game cover states, on the Michigan bench after the game, “all eyes were red, and it had nothing to do with the chlorine.”
That set the stage for this year, where the rivalry renewed itself in No. 9 Michigan’s (16-9, 4-0 CWPA) second game of the season. No. 14 Indiana (23-7, 4-1 CWPA) rode the performance of star goalkeeper Cassie Wyckoff to a 6-3 win.
“The thing is, we were really kind of garbage defensively during that game,” King said. “Cassie came up with some big saves.”
Figuring out how to score on Wyckoff, the five-time Collegiate Water Polo Association Defensive Player of the Week, will be Anderson’s biggest headache going into Saturday’s rematch. Continuing the trend of familiarity, Wyckoff was a starting member of the United States Women’s National ‘B’ Team last summer, which Anderson happened to coach.
“I just hope she didn’t improve so much that that it’s significantly harder to score on her,” Anderson said. “Because she is the best goalie on the East Coast.”
The game is expected to be one where every goal is not only hard to come by but dearly important to the team that scores it. This fits right in to the history of the rivalry.
“The amount of one-goal or overtime games we’ve had is amazing,” said Anderson.
It’s also senior night for Michigan, as well as a “Think Pink” game to raise breast cancer awareness. The game begins at Canham Natatorium on Saturday at noon, and will also be Michigan’s fourth-ever game televised live on Big Ten Network.