As the Michigan water polo team heads into the final stretch of
conference play, it stands atop the standings, eager to continue
the dominance it has shown all season. The Wolverines’
current 19-7 record marks the best start in the fledgling
program’s history, and is validated by a No. 8 national
ranking — an all-time high for the program. Quite an
accomplishment for a team that just achieved varsity status in 2001
and is graduating its first class of four-year varsity
letterwomen.

No small part of this success is a quartet of girls that hails
from San Diego — Michigan head coach Matt Anderson’s
home turf. And the girls’ pilgrimage to the Midwest is more
significant than you might think. This West Coast connection
includes a pair of sisters, Erin and Jamie Brown. The San Diego
sisters are accompanied by sophomore Megan Hausmann and freshman
Ashley McCullum.

The club team that the foursome emerged from in high school has
won the national championship the past four years, so the girls are
no strangers to success, and the commitment it entails. San Diego
is a hotbed for water polo, and holds a national prestige surpassed
only by the Los Angeles area. California’s dominance in the
realm of water polo is highlighted by the fact that 19 of the last
20 national titles are held by California schools.

In a sport clearly dominated by the West Coast, you might ask
why these elite players would abandon the temperate climate,
outdoor pools and pristine beaches of Southern California for the
oppressive winters and frozen ponds of Wolverine country.

McCullum explains that she was drawn by the success of the
athletic programs at Michigan.

“I like the bigness and academic challenge,”
McCullum said. “What was most important in my decision was
the different experience Michigan offered from West Coast schools.
I really wanted to immerse myself in the Midwest culture, meet
different types of people and catch a football game or
two.”

Michigan has established itself as a major powerhouse in the
East in just four years, and the progress it has made is rooted in
the ability to recruit big-time competitors. The team has been very
successful in its short history — reaching the Final Four in
2002, only to suffer a heartbreaking loss to Stanford in the
semifinals. The program still needs to establish itself as a threat
to Western dominance, and the Wolverines are well on their way.

“I saw Michigan as a great opportunity to join a program
on the rise,” said junior Erin Brown, who was the first of
the group to make the exodus. “All the West Coast schools
already have a deep tradition of success, and Michigan had nowhere
to go but up.”

Erin Brown and Hausmann have been best friends since high school
and even live together, and their friendship is an intangible
element that cannot be underestimated.

All four have played together in various capacities since the
seventh grade, so the girls have a familiarity that can’t be
coached. Having competed together at such a high level, they are
accustomed to one another’s styles and tendencies in and out
of the pool. In a sport that runs a motion offense similar to
basketball, chemistry and timing are everything. This is compounded
by the fact that it is played in water and is more physical, which
makes precision in ball movement even more crucial. The
restrictions of playing in the water and navigating physical
defense make it harder to recover an errant pass, and the
punishment can be brutal.

“I know where my sister’s going to be in the
water,” freshman Jamie Brown said. “Erin and I have an
awareness of each other that only siblings could share. I also know
what buttons to push if she ever slacks off.”

The San Diego connection could prove to be a boon for
Anderson’s recruiting efforts, as more high profile talent
can be drawn from the area.

“The pipeline from Southern California opened big time
with these girls,” Anderson said. “Having players from
the same location is invaluable because they have similar interests
and can relate to each other better. Whether they discuss the teams
they played in high school or even the same burrito joints, it
makes Michigan feel more like home. We always can band together and
ridicule their teammates’ taste in Mexican food.”

Geographic diversity aside, the Wolverines must play together as
a unit this weekend, when they hit the road for the Collegiate
Water Polo Association Divisional weekend. They will play in Grove
City, Penn., on Saturday, and continue their campaign in Slippery
Rock, Pa., on Sunday. The Wolverines look forward to playing five
conference games over two days, hoping to extend their
unprecedented record as the playoffs rapidly approach.

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