There wasn’t much reason to be outdoors yesterday, but I left my drafty house in search of warmer pastures inside Canham Natatorium.

Jeremy Cho / Daily
Leah Robertson at the game against Princeton on Saturday, April 26, 2008

No, I didn’t just go there to bask in the radiated heat of an empty poolhouse. The Michigan women’s water polo team was taking on four-time defending national champion UCLA.

I’ve only been to a couple water polo matches in my life, and I’m far from being an expert on the sport.

But after yesterday, I think I’ll be watching a lot more.

It’s not an easy sport to describe. It best resembles soccer because there are two teams trying to get a ball into a goal.

There’s an element of basketball, too. On offense, the teams tend to cycle the ball around the perimeter, looking for an open shot or a lane to pass inside. Basketball would be even more like water polo if the lane was a pool and post players were allowed to grab, yank, dunk and tackle each other. You or I would drown in 10 seconds, no question.

Even with those basic comparisons, there was a lot about the sport I didn’t understand.

Whistles were blown seemingly at random.

Players hopped in and out of the water while the game seemed to be flowing.

The referees wore all-white uniforms.

Despite my ignorance, I really enjoyed watching, and I think the other students who were there felt the same.

Water polo is primed to be a great spectator sport at Michigan.

It’s a fast-paced game with a great mix of power and finesse. Michigan coach Matt Anderson wasn’t pulling my leg when he told me it was the quickest and most physical women’s varsity sport in Ann Arbor.

You’re right on top of the action inside Canham, which can get loud when it’s full. (Imagine a warmer Yost with water instead of ice and no glass separating fans from the bench.)

And here’s the kicker: Michigan is good.

The Wolverines aren’t just good by East Coast standards, they’re good by national standards. In a sport dominated by schools in Southern California, Michigan is becoming a significant contender.

Not bad for a school that has only had a varsity team since 2001.

Last season, the Wolverines made the NCAA Tournament and finished sixth.

Michigan entered this weekend, the season-opening Michigan Kick-Off, with a preseason No. 10 ranking. But that number is probably going to go up.

The Wolverines started the season Saturday with an 8-6 loss to No. 5 California. Next, they shut out Colorado State (unlike soccer, you don’t see many shutouts in water polo, I’m told). And yesterday morning, they upset No. 7 San Jose State.

Then came the matchup with the Bruins, Michigan’s fourth game in two days. It was UCLA’s third.

I’ve already mentioned they’re four-time defending national champions. I haven’t told you the last time they lost a match was in 2007 or that they shellacked Michigan 16-0 a year ago or that they returned fifteen players from last season, including three All-Americans.

Michigan jumped out to a 2-0 lead and trailed just 3-2 at halftime. It wasn’t a surprise to see UCLA pull away with a 10-4 win, but it was exciting to see Michigan hang tough with a high-caliber team.

Michigan’s goals are clear: repeat as Eastern Champions, return to the NCAA Tournament and achieve a top-five ranking.

Now the Wolverines are on the road until early March. When they get back, I suggest you go to Canham and check out the sport and team for yourself.

— Sandals can be reached at nsandals@umich.edu.

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