Tough competition and hard-fought matches highlighted an overall successful weekend for the Michigan women’s water polo team, which won three of its five games in Santa Barbara to open the 2016 season. Three of those matches pitted the 12th-ranked Wolverines against teams in the top eight nationally.

“I feel like we got tested,” said coach Marcelo Leonardi. “We used it as a measurement to see where we’re at as a team, and overall I think we performed pretty well.”

Though the weekend began on a somewhat sour note with an 11-10 loss to No. 7 Hawaii — a game in which Rainbow Wahine sophomore Nikki-Marie Bell scored the game-winning goal with just three seconds left — Michigan rebounded in its next match, defeating No. 19 Cal State Northridge by a score of 12-4. 

The Wolverines carried their momentum forward, winning two more games Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning — which included a rout of No. 24 Cal Baptist and a stellar offensive performance against No. 8 San Jose State in which Michigan won, 18-9. But the Wolverines’ run was cut short, as they fell to No. 2 UCLA, 11-7, in the final game of the weekend. 

Despite the loss to the powerhouse Bruins, Leonardi praised his team, especially senior Ali Thomason, as they prepared to head back to Ann Arbor.

“I have to give props — (Thomason) had a fantastic weekend,” Leonardi said.  “She’s not just a scorer. She’s doing it on both sides of the pool.”

Though Leonardi always appreciates the efforts of Thomason and the rest of an experienced core, he also acknowledged the contributions his younger players made. The second-year coach is introducing his first recruiting class this season.

“Our freshmen all played quality minutes almost every single game,” Leonardi said. “I expect the front string that I’ve recruited to come in and make an immediate impact, which they did.”

In Friday’s opening contest, four Wolverines made their collegiate debut, including freshman Kim Johnson, who started all five games to begin her Michigan career.

“In my very first game, there were some jitters,” Johnson said. “But overall I don’t really get butterflies — I just get excited. I mostly get pumped up by the close games and the excitement of it all.”

If any anxiety existed, Johnson seemed to eradicate it fairly quickly, scoring three goals each in three of her first four games and finishing with a total of 12 goals in the five matches combined.

Johnson’s comfort and immediate impact are perhaps a product of having her older sister, Danielle, a junior, on the team as well. The two last played together in high school, and have always had great chemistry.

“It’s so much fun having her here,” Kim Johnson said. “Danielle is my best friend, and we have a great dynamic in the water. I’m so happy we ended up at Michigan together.”

Leonardi should be happy, too, as the Wolverines are off to a fast start in 2016. Chemistry, not just between the Johnson sisters but throughout the team as a whole, certainly has had something to do with it. 

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