Locker room chatter is solely about it.

A coach’s countdown leads up to it.

National club championship hopes rely on it.

For the Michigan Men’s club water polo team, winning a Big Ten championship is the only way the Wolverines can enter the National Club championships – the team’s benchmark for success in recent years.

In club water polo, only the winners of conference tournaments are invited to the nationals, making it imperative to win the conference championship.

Intensifying the race to the nationals is Michigan’s loss last season in the Big Ten Championship game to Michigan State – preventing the Wolverines from winning a Big Ten title for the third year in a row.

With last year’s season-ending loss leaving a bitter taste in its mouth, Michigan cannot think about anything besides returning to the National Club Championships. And that requires a return trip to the conference title game.

It’s a reachable goal considering the success the water polo team has had recently. Michigan has won three National Club Championships, six Big Ten Championships and has four second-place finishes in the Big Ten in the past 15 years.

Led by co-captains and Big Ten first team members John Thomas and Dan Kurdys, new coaches Drew Hansz and Bob Sala have the team hitting its stride two tournaments into the season.

The first tournament for the Wolverines took place two weeks ago in East Lansing, where Michigan State hosted the Spartan Invitational.

“Everyone was a little rusty because it was our first tournament and the coaches were just starting to get a feel (for the team),” Zatkoff said of the team’s 2-2 performance.

But the Wolverine Invitational, held last week, was a much different story.

Zatkoff said he felt strongly that the team performed much closer to its potential in the most recent tournament. Zatkoff also said the performance was even more impressive because of the tough week of practice preceding the Wolverine Invitational, resulting in the team playing tired. Returning starter junior John MacDonald was enthusiastic in reaction to the better overall showing by the Wolverines.

But Michigan’s loses to No. 1 Michigan State and No. 2 Grand Valley State show that the team must play even better in order to make the National Club Championships. For now, the Wolverines have fixed their focus on beating their main rival, Michigan State, whom they will likely face in the Big Ten Championships, and there are still three more tournaments for the 12th-ranked Wolverines to continue improving.

Looking to the future, the team also has good prospects for the years to come. Freshmen Paul Reynold, Ben Cousineau and Matt Rowlend are the future and have already begun to contribute this year.

This cycle of good talent coming into the program is not out of the norm for water polo. According to Zatkoff, most people on the “A” team have about eight to ten years experience. But if people without experience want to get involved in water polo, a “B” team also exists. It consists mostly of people with only swimming experience, often because their high school did not have a water polo team. Zatkoff said the easiest way to get involved is to check out the team’s website and fill out a recruitment form.

But for right now, with 53 days until the Big Ten tournament, Michigan only has a conference championship on its mind.

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