When Marcelo Leonardi was hired as the Michigan water polo coach, he didn’t expect to reach this point in less than two years.
Saturday at Canham Natatorium, the eighth-ranked Wolverines entered their contests ranked ahead of their conference foes, No. 13 Harvard and No. 16 Princeton, and went on to beat them in back-to-back games. But before all that, Michigan wrapped up the last home invitational of the year with a short ceremony to honor the team's graduating seniors.
Before the game against the Crimson, senior attackers Ali Thomason and Emily Martin, utility player Emily Sejna and goalie Julia Campbell stood on the edge of the pool deck, draped in bouquets and surrounded by balloons. Leonardi gave a short, emotional speech in front of a crowd several hundred strong. He thanked his seniors for doing the work of “rebuilding the program,” but paused when his voice shook.
“I’m proud of you all,” he said.
Thomason followed up by scoring four goals in the ensuing match. Martin added three and Campbell made critical saves late in the game that secured Michigan’s victory. The seniors showcased the type of play indicative of a team sitting at the No. 8 spot in the national polls.
The Wolverines seem to have worked through any transitional period since Leonardi's hire, and found success in the process. They have more wins this year than either of the past two seasons, with a week of regular-season play still on the schedule, not to mention postseason tournaments.
“My past few years here have been rough,” Martin said. “We haven’t really done the best. This year, we’re really performing. We’re a great team.”
Martin and the three other graduating seniors were originally part of a 13-member freshman class. After Michigan appointed Leonardi, several players transferred. Campbell, Sejna, Martin and Thomason were the ones who stayed.
Saturday was the first time Michigan has been able to beat Princeton in four years, including a 9-7 loss late last season. The Wolverines have also failed to reach the NCAA Tournament every year since 2009.
Leonardi installed a system that was entirely different from what his four seniors — just sophomores at the time — were accustomed to. He immediately reworked the schedule to give the Wolverines tougher competition for future seasons, even though it meant Michigan would only host one home contest that first year.
But Leonardi didn’t stop with the schedule. He changed everything for his players across the board — from how they practice to how they eat — standard protocol for an incoming coach. But Leonardi’s changes brought results in his second year — results that have led to more wins in the record book and more satisfaction to the minds of his players.
“We have a base of culture,” Thomason said. “We know everyone’s working hard, and everyone has put in the work this year.
“He’s only been our coach for two years, but all four of us (seniors) have formed this bond with him. He took us under his wing and helped this program transform into something that the four of us envisioned for it. It truly means a lot to us to see that our love for the game and love for everyone around us is reciprocated in how he feels.”
The exposure of being nationally ranked could give the Wolverines a recruiting boost, as long as they keep winning. Current senior leadership is already going a long way to help sell Leonardi’s message to the underclassmen.
Freshman attacker Kim Johnson is Michigan’s second leading goal-scorer with 48 so far this season. She chalked up five more goals against Princeton.
“One of the reasons why I came (to Michigan) was because I wanted to be a part of building this program,” Johnson said. “I love being on an underdog team who comes back, builds up and surprises everybody. And I felt like that’s really what we’ve done, and I feel like we’re going to stay on top the rest of my time here.”
Leonardi admits that while he expected to be competitive in conference play, he didn’t expect to become nationally ranked so quickly. In the quest to build a winning, competitive program, Leonardi is ahead of schedule.
He credits much of that to his seniors.
“Those are the four that bought in,” Leonardi said. “(They) really helped me change the climate and the culture of the program. They were the first ones on the bus.”