The water polo team gathers on the pool deck behind their coach, who is speaking to players in the water.
For the third time this season, Michigan lost to No. 3 California. Sarah Boeke/Daily. Buy this photo.

At their last home meet of the season, the Wolverines hoped to beat California — something they had failed to do in the previous two meetings.

And on Friday, they fell short once again.

In its final match-up of the year, the No. 7 Michigan water polo team (26-9 overall, 12-0 CWPA) fell to No. 3 Golden Bears (17-6) amidst hopeless “Let’s go blue!” chants.

The Canham Natatorium stands filled with fans in maize and blue as Ann Arbor hosted the NCAA Women’s Water Polo Championship for the first time since 2011. 

“We focus on our vision and we focus on the process which got us to our sixth championship in a row,” Michigan coach Dr. Marcelo Leonardi said. “We made it to the year where we hosted the NCAA Championships — there’s pressure involved in that.”

Early game pressure amounted to success for California that never wavered. In the two regular season games against the Golden Bears, the Wolverines found themselves at a loss against steady pressure in each quarter, unable to find or maintain a lead. 

The same strategy was used to defeat Michigan, 10-4, in the quarterfinal round of the NCAA Championship, ending an otherwise-successful season.

The Wolverines were in trouble from the first half. With a missed shot at an empty net as the end of the first quarter neared and three consecutive California goals to conclude the second, it was clear that Michigan was outmatched. 

The second half began with a feasible three-goal deficit for the Wolverines, but previous strategies Michigan employed to find success failed to work. The Wolverines previously displayed strong defensive strategies to pressure their past opponents, yet the Golden Bears remained unphased. They had surpassed Michigan at their own game and used it to secure their own victory. California led the match with eight steals to the Wolverines’ four and held them to four goals — the lowest of their season. 

Although Michigan’s success in the CWPA has led to six consecutive NCAA appearances, none of those trips have brought home hardware — making it clear that dominating the CWPA is just not enough. 

“Teams are coming in from different areas, venues and championships,” Leonardi said. “The key is timing when we peak.”

Peaking at the right time is a common key to success in most sports. But, with national championship matches following CWPA championship results, it seems that the conference the Wolverines belong to leaves them woefully unprepared for their true competition. 

During the regular season, Michigan regularly appeared out-matched against the teams that normally dominate the NCAA Championships. Early losses against California, Stanford and UCLA — top-four ranked teams competing in the championships — were evidence of this.

In order to find success in the NCAA Championships, it is imperative that the Wolverines first find the key to victory against the three teams that have held a monopoly on the crowning achievement since the start of the tournament in 2001: Stanford, UCLA and USC.

During the offseason, rebuilding will focus on the new players added to the roster in hopes of finally finding the right formula to put the Wolverines on the map against higher-level opponents.

“It’s about training, playing and getting better,” Leonardi said. “Expectations and standards are high, (players) want to come back and win a seventh championship in a row and qualify for NCAAs.”

And if Michigan can excel at that, the Wolverines may finally have the opportunity to find success beyond the CWPA.