An old punchline, a new setup: Why doesn”t Ohio State have a varsity water polo team?

Paul Wong
David Den Herder

Because the horses keep drowning.

There you go. Never see a game in Michigan”s inaugural water polo season, and at least you have another zinger for the Buckeyes.

It is easy to overlook this team, even as a Wolverine zealot. The rafters of Canham Natatorium are veiled by countless championship banners. None of them contain the words “swimming” or “diving” only because they don”t need to it is assumed, and it should be, that they represent Michigan”s storied tankers.

But poolside, under the rows and rows of arrogant blue banners, Amber Drury-Pinto is pacing, clenching a can of Pepsi that she hasn”t taken a sip from in 20 minutes.

She”s working to change Canham”s image a bit trying to make it the home of Michigan swimming and Michigan polo. Right now, her team is losing to No. 1 Stanford, 9-2.

“Get it in!” Drury-Pinto pleads, coaching her team to “feed the hole” pass to the two-meter. Her players in the water can hear only half of everything she screams, and the Wolverines will be helpless to resist two more Stanford goals before the final buzzer.

Still, the weekend is a victory for Drury-Pinto and a big step for the Wolverines. The first annual Michigan Invitational is going off without a hitch. The top-ranked team in the country is in town, along with its two Olympians. So is Slippery Rock, the original varsity program. So is Indiana, the only other varsity team in the Big Ten, and Michigan”s soon-to-be archrival.

To think, there wasn”t even supposed to be a water polo invitational in Michigan this weekend. The teams originally planned to compete in Bloomington, but were forced to relocate on account of the women”s swimming Big Ten Championships.

Another opportunity seized by Drury-Pinto. If polo is a small world, then Canham for the weekend was a perfect microcosm and a serendipitous home debut for the Wolverines.

But things were not always so exciting on the Ann Arbor polo scene. The Michigan women have spent many seasons before this winter competing on the intercollegiate club level contently, many of them still claim.

“All the support we get now,” says senior captain Christy Lilley, “that”s the biggest difference. It”s great.”

Lilley, a graduate of Ann Arbor Pioneer, can recall a time in the not-too-distant past when the women”s polo club would cram six Wolverines to a hotel room on road trips to curb costs, and when players needed part-time jobs just to cover the cost of playing.

Another senior captain, Melissa Karjala, also sees changes some on a much broader scale. In a sport once thought of as “something swimmers do in the offseason to stay in shape,” polo is coming into its own before her eyes.

“In high school we could either do yards or play polo,” she recants. That high school Ann Arbor Huron set her opposite Lilley as an aquatic archrival. Today, they co-captain Michigan”s first varsity water polo team in the first year that the NCAA will sponsor a championship for women”s water polo.

The final four of that championship the inaugural final four will be held at Stanford in May. Drury-Pinto says Michigan”s goal is to be there. Lilley and Karjala say it”s realistic.

As the clock expires at Canham Natatorium, Stanford coach John Tanner applauds his players” efforts, Olympians and all. The final score is Stanford 11, Michigan 3.

Drury-Pinto looks briefly to the ceiling. The arrogant blue banners are unavoidable from her view, but she is focusing for the moment on infinity.

“I”m very impressed with what Michigan has done,” says Tanner after the game. “Usually I would say, “give it four or five years,” but the way things have progressed, it could be three ”

As Tanner waits for his team to leave the natatorium, another arrives the Michigan women”s swimming team has returned after winning the Big Ten title in Bloomington. The polo team greets the swimming team at the door with a spirited chorus of “The Victors.” This will mean another banner.

Senior swimmer Jen Crisman, having defended her backstroke title, is giddy to examine the new Michigan water polo swimsuits, which have recently arrived in the mail. In two weeks, she”ll put one on herself.

The Wolverines have been playing water polo for years at Canham Natatorium. The punchline is the same.

But this season, the setup is completely new. And as Drury-Pinto watches her Wolverines cheer their Canham housemates, she can do nothing but smile. In four years, she”ll have the equivalent of eight full-ride scholarships with which to work.

Does that mean this program is on the four-year plan?

“I hope not,” she says with a coy grin. “Four years is a long time.”

David Den Herder can be reached at dden@umich.edu.

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