With 45 seconds left on the clock in overtime, sophomore attacker Ashley O’Neil had a chance to give the No. 7 Michigan water polo team the lead in the last game of the ASU Cross Conference Challenge. Her shot from 10 meters out found the back of the net, clinching an 11-10 win over No. 10 Arizona State.
The seventh-ranked Wolverines (4-0 overall) opened their season in the challenge with a new head coach, but that didn’t hinder Michigan’s performance as it beat all four teams it faced.
Through their first three games, the Wolverines did as expected, beating three unranked opponents by a wide margin before facing greater adversity in their win against the Sun Devils (3-1 overall).
“I think its resilience… every single quarter they got better and better,” Michigan coach Cassie Churnside said. “Our mindset was definitely to stick to our game plan and trust the process.”
That development was evident in the first two days of the three-day event as the Wolverines dominated on both offense and defense.
In Michigan’s first game against Biola (0-3), back-to-back goals by graduate center Erin Neustrom and junior attacker Lola Ciruli less than a minute into the game gave the Wolverines an early lead. While the offense continued to generate open shots, Michigan’s suffocating defense forced turnovers and steals, leading to a 14-0 shutout.
On Saturday, the Wolverines faced California Baptist (2-2) for their first matchup of the day and this game was no different. With three of its players scoring a hat trick, the offense — led by Ciruli and junior attacker Kata Utassy — gave Michigan a commanding 16-5 win over the Lancers.
“Kata Utassy is one of the best all-around players on our team,” Churnside said. “She’s going to be critical to us and our success this season.”
Later that day, Utassy followed up her first hat trick of the season with another complete performance, racking up two steals and leading the team with five goals in Wolverine’s 18-6 win against Azusa Pacific (0-3).
Despite its undefeated start, the hardest challenge still lay ahead of Michigan and its new head coach, Churnside — in the form of the only other ranked opponent in the event, Arizona State.
The Wolverines once again opened the game with a lead, but the momentum soon shifted. Late in the second quarter, Michigan struggled to find open shots against the Sun Devil’s stifling defense, giving Arizona State a 5-4 lead heading into the second half.
“The trick for us is just being open-minded and just talking through the whole process,” Utassy said. “It was definitely a challenge, but I think it brought out the best of us.”
Facing a deficit for the first time all season, the Wolverines maintained their poise. A deep shot from junior attacker Sammi Monroe followed by back-to-back goals from Utassy tied the game at 7-7 with two minutes left in the third quarter. By the sixth minute in the fourth quarter, they took a 9-7 lead.
Just as it seemed Michigan had settled into a groove that gave it the lead, the Sun Devils responded. A penalty shot by Arizona State attacker Juliette Dhalluin with a minute and a half left in the game ultimately sent the game into overtime.
“I looked at them and I said, ‘We’re gonna win this game’, ” Churnside said. “We’re playing to win and ASU was playing not to lose.”
After each team scored a goal in overtime, the Wolverines had the last possession. With the shot clock winding down, O’Neil was forced into taking a deep shot that found the net, securing Michigan’s undefeated start to its season.
The offensive and defensive consistency throughout the challenge increased confidence in the new coaching staff and the Wolverines’ depth, but whether they are able to maintain an all-around performance against high-ranked opponents will be their true test.