The Michigan water polo team again played a four-game tournament after rising in the national poll and again proved to coach Marcelo Leonardi that his vision for the program is paying off in his second season.
“Honestly, I think we’re overachieving,” Leonardi said. “Going from year one to year two, we’ve definitely overachieved. There were some games that I thought we would be close to winning, but in order to say that we would be this good right now, it’s definitely humbling.”
This weekend, the Wolverines hosted four games at Canham Natatorium, knocking off No. 21 Long Beach State, 15-8, and No. 15 Loyola Marymount, 12-11, on Saturday. That set up a Sunday rematch with No. 2 UCLA, which defeated Michigan for the third time this season, 9-5.
But the Wolverines recovered and trounced George Washington, 19-2, continuing their roll and securing a third straight 3-1 weekend. After ranking No. 12 in the preseason poll — tied with conference foe Indiana — Michigan (16-5) came in at No. 5 last week and should remain there this week.
Leonardi arrived last season and led his team to a 19-13 finish, but the Wolverines couldn’t manage to earn their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2010. This year, that goal is more within reach. Leonardi fashioned a difficult schedule for Michigan, with the first 20 games coming against ranked teams.
That competition has put the Wolverines in a position for an at-large bid — that is, if they don’t win the California Water Polo Association championship and snag the automatic bid. Leonardi believes that at this point, his team is in good position for one or the other, provided it takes care of business in conference play starting April 2.
After two important weekends on the road in California, Michigan returned home, where it is now 7-1 this season. Leonardi credited the typical aspects of home — such as players sleeping in their own beds, seeing their family and having friends come to the games — for the success.
Against Long Beach State, the Wolverines pulled away with seven straight goals in the first half that provided the final margin of victory. Loyola Marymount proved tougher in a game that featured seven ties and five lead changes, but Michigan prevailed despite giving up a goal with five seconds left that trimmed the deficit back to one.
“The word ‘resiliency’ definitely comes up, but I also gotta say composure,” Leonardi said. “In the most critical times, we have great leadership in the water, and I feel like the game slows down for them.”
Even with two wins under their belts, though, the Wolverines couldn’t upset the high-powered Bruins. While Michigan has made progress over the past year, Leonardi thinks his team is just short in terms of personnel — UCLA goes 12 players deep, while the Wolverines only have nine or 10 at that level.
“I feel we’re one piece away,” Leonardi said. “Talent-wise, they’re just a little bit further ahead, and that has a lot to do with the fact that they’ve been a juggernaut for so many years.”
Michigan is off for two of the next three weekends, with a four-game tournament at Arizona State in between. Three of those games will be against ranked teams, but the Wolverines are currently the highest-rated of all of them. Their standing is a reward for the success, and with each weekend, it keeps building.