Just two years ago, the Michigan and Michigan State water polo teams might have been considered equal competitors in the club sports arena. But now Michigan coach Matt Anderson says it’s hard to get his team to concentrate before its annual match against the Spartans.
“It’s hard to get a team ranked 12th in the nation to really focus on a game like this,” Anderson said of his team. “To them, they figure it’s like a practice, and maybe they can try some different things.”
Since its inaugural varsity season in 2001, Michigan has become a dominant force on the East Coast and in the Midwest, and can afford to take on a relaxed approach to exhibition matches against teams like Michigan State, which is still a club team.
But the Spartans don’t have such luxuries. Even though they are one of the nation’s best club water polo teams, the match against Michigan is one of their biggest games of the season.
Don’t think the Wolverines can’t relate to their opponent’s situation, though. On Friday night, four seniors who can trace their time on the team back to when it was still a club sport were honored. Stephanie Morse, Emily Pelino, Abbi Rowe and Delia Sonda all understand the significance of the opportunities provided to varsity athletes.
“Our big games as a club used to be against State,” Sonda said. “We weren’t funded, and we weren’t as respected as we are now.”
Each of the seniors expressed her appreciation for the unique experience of participating in the transition from club to varsity status.
“We know what it truly feels like to be a Michigan athlete,” Morse said. “We’ve been on the club side, and we know what it means to have to pay for everything. Now, it’s such an honor for us to be able to do this.”
Someday, the Spartans may also receive that honor, Anderson hopes.
“Four years ago, Michigan did not have a varsity Senior Night, and the hope is that four years from now Michigan State will be able to have a varsity Senior Night,” he said. “So it is very important that these girls from Michigan State understand that these seniors went through the same things they did.”
The Wolverines are not only role models for other talented club teams looking to move up in status, but they are also great competition, and matches against them give teams a chance to gauge their skills and find out what they need to work on.
“(This game) is important for Michigan State, as they’re trying to win another club national championship. This gives them a very good game to try and see how far along they are during the season,” Anderson said, adding that the match gives Michigan State “the confidence that they can do some things well against a very good team.”
That doesn’t mean the Wolverines go easy on their rival opponents. Six different players scored for Michigan on Friday, four of them more than once, and the Wolverines nearly notched a shutout. The Spartans slipped a goal past backup goalkeeper Jessica Falarski with 24 seconds left in the game to bring the final score to 11-1, but before that could not muster much offense against Michigan’s stifling defense.
“Our goal was to limit them as much as we could to no shots,” Anderson said. “I think their first five times down they didn’t get a shot. I’m very happy with that.”
Anderson was also happy with the fact that 21 players of the 28-person roster got playing time, and that there were no large injuries suffered.
“(That match) is important for the seniors, is the main thing,” Anderson said. “Other than that, you only play games like this for exhibitions, for senior nights, or things like that, and hope you don’t come away with an injury.”