Every weekday morning, a cheery group of student-athletes gathers in Canham Natatorium to play the strangest sport. The result of basketball meeting soccer and jumping into a pool, water polo mixes familiar elements into a sport that can seem very foreign to outsiders.

Though most water polo matches take place in regulation-size pools, the No. 10 Michigan water polo team recently played in a pool that was definitely not normal.

“It had a shallow end,” said Michigan coach Matt Anderson. “We’re a team that likes to spread things out, but since Hartwick was the home team, they picked a pool that would negate that.”

Sportsmanlike or not, coaches are allowed to do this in water polo.

The Michigan water polo team has two practices every day, another unique aspect of the sport. The first is a swimming workout, where the team will log anywhere from two to three miles in the pool. Once the players finish, they immediately strap on padded caps, set up goals and start actually playing their sport.

Athletes in other sports certainly have to stay in shape as well, but the water polo workouts match the intensity of a swimming team’s practices.

Unlike more popular sports, where huge high-school talent pools force athletes to specialize to stand out, water polo players have to be a complete package. Players have to be fast swimmers, able to throw bullets, strong enough to fend off contact, quick at decision-making and tall enough to throw over outstretched arms to have a chance of playing at Michigan.

And that’s the thing: Michigan is really good at water polo. In his 10-year tenure, Anderson’s team has never failed to win its division. The Wolverines have won five conference titles, qualified for the national tournament three times and created a rare water polo powerhouse 2,000 miles from the Pacific Ocean in a sport historically dominated by California schools.

This year’s edition is no different. There’s junior attacker Kiki Golden, an honorable mention All-American junior who had 39 goals in 37 games last year. A trio of experienced goalkeepers is led by junior Alex Adamson, who ranks fourth in saves in Michigan’s history. The center – a key position, also called the two-meter because that’s how far away from the goal she camps out – is junior Lauren Colton, a commanding player who set a school record for drawing seven opposing player ejections in a single game.

The list could go on. Four other Wolverines have won divisional awards this year. Eleven different players scored against Gannon two weeks ago. The team has been thrashing local competition and going toe-to-toe with the best in the country.

Anderson pins his success on having an established program. The continuity of coaching style allows his upperclassmen to know what to expect.

“Katie (Card, the assistant coach) and I, we only have two sets of eyes between us, and we’re removed from the pool,” Anderson said. “We can’t stop things and get into the pool for any hands-on training. So we rely on the seniors to bring along the freshmen because they’ve seen everything before.”

There’s also volunteer coach Jeff Kacerek too, who isn’t afraid to jump into the pool if an extra body is needed. But hidden in Anderson’s words is the revelation that the coaching staff is remarkably small. Much of their time must be spent on “housekeeping” tasks such as putting up nets and timing laps.

“There’s a lot of schlepping we have to do,” Anderson said.

It’s bizarre that a program with such a national pedigree would have so few caretakers, especially when other collegiate sports often have a sizable following of trainers and managers. Even with the backdrop of championship banners hanging from the rafters and plaques of Michigan legends posted on the walls, there’s something that feels very laid-back and approachable about Michigan water polo.

Anderson, as always, has an answer.

“We’re a working-man’s coaching staff,” he said.

And it’s this, if anything, that comes closest to defining this otherwise hodgepodge sport. It may mix basketball with soccer, dominance with humility and old with new. But, the work ethic is unfiltered.

This is a team that works itself to exhaustion for hours every morning, plays largely in front of parents and siblings, and doesn’t even understand what academic ineligibility is.

“How does that even happen?” laughed one of the players when Anderson mentioned the recent academic suspension of Syracuse basketball player Fab Melo.

This blue-collar work ethic is a quality evident to everyone, even the most inexperienced and confused observer. Curious fans can come see them in person next Saturday against Indiana, the team’s main rival, in a Big Ten Network-televised match.

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