Last season there were only two teams outside of the state of California that finished in the national top ten. One was no surprise as the Rainbow Wahine of Hawaii were expected to make a Final Four impact at the beginning of the season. The other came from a school that is quietly making the transition from “sleeping giant” to perennial power. The University of Michigan finished fifth at last season’s NCAAs and received a final ranking of seventh in the country. Along the way, the Maize and Blue won twenty-five straight games and twenty-seven out of twenty-eight to end the season. Their only loss came to eventual NCAA Champion UCLA. That streak included wins over San Diego State, Hartwick and a shellacking of Loyola Marymount in the NCAA fifth place game. In that contest, Michigan blitzed Loyola Marymount for eight straight goals in route to winning 11-7.
Matt Anderson became the second coach in the history of the Michigan program when he assumed the duties in September of 2002. In that short period of time, he has been named CWPA Coach of the Year three times and has produced eighteen All-Americans along with an Olympian in Betsey Armstrong. I got a chance to catch up with Coach Anderson to discuss this year’s squad and their NCAA prospects. Below is our interview.
Last year, your squad finished the season with a strong fifth-place showing at NCAAs. What does Michigan have to do to improve on that and break into the Final Four?
For Michigan or any “East Coast” school to have a better chance at winning that first game at NCAA’s it will require a couple things, including getting seeded into the 4/5 game. There is usually a noticeable difference in playing the 3/6 versus the 4/5. In our last three appearances at the NCAA’s (in 2002 it was just four teams) which were 2005, 2008, 2009 and since they went to the eight team format, the #3 seed we have faced in the quarters has made it to the Championship game—with the #3 last year, UCLA winning it. I would like to believe that we had a factor in preparing them for a tough semifinal with a strong effort in our game!
The in the water factor that plays a big role is having the experience in your lineup. NCAA’s affects all players to some level—but it seems that the veteran teams either with Juniors or Seniors or a team that is making a return trip are less affected by the pomp and circumstances that come with the trip. And as always you need to be healthy and hope a few shots and blocks go your way! It will happen and it is just a matter of who and when.
Leah Robertson is a star for your squad and is an absolutely phenomenal defender. Can you tell us a little about her and what makes her the great player she is?
I agree with you Trevor that one of our team’s Captains, Leah is a phenomenal defender. I tend to believe that she is the best defensive player currently in college. What separates her from most is fundamentals. Her body balance and horizontal movement forward, backward, to lunge and vertical are as good as I have ever seen by any player. She has a tendency to want the ball when she’s on defense and her first few strokes once she gets that ball are outstanding and lead to her quickness dribbling with the ball. It is very nice as a coach to have a player that is more concerned with her defensive performance than her offense—and Leah’s offense is strong too!
Brittany May was outstanding between the pipes last year for your squad. What makes her the exceptional goaltender that she is?
Brittany has been huge for us in the two years we have had her. A goaltender has to have the confidence of her teammates and Britt has that. They also need to make the blocks they should and have to make at least one or more during a game that you don’t expect them to get to. Britt will never have the ‘fundamental look’ of a top goaltender but she has the teaching and the instinct of where to go to come up with the block that leads to what I feel is the most important quality which is that she knows how to win. Her track record in March and April and May has been better than I could have asked for.
Alison Mantel is an underrated cog in the Michigan attack. What makes her the effective player that she is?
Covering defense, goalie and now offense with your questions. Well done.
Alison is effective because of her drive physically and mentally to be as good as she can. She takes care of herself out of the water and in the water she never just does something in practice or a game just to do it. She puts 100% effort into every shot and pass she makes and learns immediately what she needs to do to improve her next one. You can see some players in practice or games are just shooting or passing the ball, where I have never, even in practice, seen Alison do that—meaning she is completely focused on doing it correctly from body balance to release point to end result even when she is by herself and thinks no one is watching. Alison is the perfect example of “practicing like you’re playing” and it is something I cherish as a coach. I don’t expect after her strong sophomore year and being recognized as an All-American that she will sneak under the radar this year; but I also know that she relishes the challenge of getting better every day.
I noted that Michigan just inked three players to Letters of Intent. Can you tell us about each player and what they will bring to the Maize and Blue?
In the three players we inked in the first signing period we were fortunate to get players that should help us immediately as freshman. Kelsey Nolan is a player that has another gear and should improve that much more when she is able to play what I feel will be her natural position in college. She has non-stop energy and aggressiveness that I’m looking forward to and takes that attitude to the strong academics we have here as well. She is going to prosper at Michigan in all areas. Audrey Pratt is someone who I think was partially a late bloomer and is now really blossoming. She had a chance this summer to step out of the shadows playing with her club, NorCal, and really improved by leaps and bounds. She is a workhorse that does the things she can do very well. Consistent and dependable she really has formed an attachment to the thought of wearing the Maize and Blue. Lauren Dudley physically has the size and speed. Mentally, she has the upbringing to really flourish while representing the Block M. She grew up cheering for Michigan even though she lives a stone’s throw away from Michigan State and will be a third generation Michigan Varsity aquatic athlete. She puts in the effort in and out of the pool to improve in all areas and has a very bright athletic future that I am going to be happy to be a part of. I believe that the college game fits her better than the high school game.
With that our interview ended. Michigan’s rise to prominence in the world of women’s water polo is only beginning. Their program gets stronger by the year and even with some of the losses they suffered through graduation, Michigan is the favorite this year in the East. With the resources and tradition this school brings to the table, it is safe to say that we are not very far away from seeing the Maize and Blue make a Final Four impact.