Michigan Faces Toughest Test in Grueling Schedule

Feb. 23, 2017

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The Barbara Kalbus Invitational will feature the top nine and 16 of the top 25 water polo teams in the country and will be the University of Michigan's toughest test so far in a grueling 2017 schedule.

No. 8 Michigan has played one of the nation's toughest schedules in the first month of the 2017 season. The Wolverines join No. 3 UCLA as the only ranked teams that have not yet played an unranked opponent. For the Wolverines, eight of their 13 games have come against top-10 opponents.

It is one of the toughest schedules in the country, and head coach Dr. Marcelo Leonardi would not have it any other way.

"Coming into our season, I felt we had one of the toughest schedules in the country," said Leonardi. "With that comes different situations, different simulations, different scenarios and I feel that by testing yourself in the most difficult of games, you will be able to see things at a speed you can't simulate in practice."

It does not get any easier this weekend as U-M starts against No. 9 UCSB on Friday (Feb. 24), a top-10 team the Wolverines have beaten twice this season, 7-4 at UCSB on Jan. 21 and 7-2 at Stanford on Feb. 11. A win would likely place them against No. 1 Stanford the following morning.

"Every game is hard at this tournament," said senior captain Danielle Johnson. "There is a lot of really good competition. It is unique because not all the best teams make the NCAA Tournament with only eight bids, but at this tournament you have the best of the best."

The tournament is a great measuring stick for all the best teams in the nation. Last year, a strong performance by the Wolverines vaulted them into the top five in the polls. Michigan upset No. 3 Cal, 7-5, in the third game of the weekend and then closed with an 8-7 sudden-death-overtime victory over No. 9 UC Irvine in the fifth-place game.

The two big wins turned some heads nationwide and gave the Wolverines a big boost. They would go 13-2 the rest of the regular season and win the CWPA Championship before finishing fourth at the NCAA Championship.

"Last year's tournament at UC Irvine really showed us where we were and the success that we could have the rest of the season," said Johnson. "I am hoping that this year's tournament will show us who we are as a team again."

Playing games against the top teams in the country provides a good measuring stick for all teams. At this juncture in a grueling non-conference season, Leonardi hopes his team is hitting another peak performance.

"The first three tournaments were our first peak, testing things out, mixing up lineups, etc.," said Leonardi. "Now we are approaching our second peak performance where you have a strong grasp of the playbook and you are what you are as a team. Conference play is the third peak performance. I want us to play the best water polo we can right now."

Since a tough 8-7 overtime loss to No. 8 UC Irvine closed out the Triton Invitational two weeks ago, the Wolverines have been spending their practice time focusing on areas of improvement they identified after testing themselves in the first 13 games.

"We sharpened up a couple of things," said Leonardi. "We played four tough teams in San Diego, and our fitness needed to take one more jump. Our 6-on-5 and 5-on-6 was an area we saw that we could get better. Knowing that this is the biggest tournament right now in the country, the team is geared up for it."

Michigan will take on No. 9 UCSB at 4:15 p.m. PST on Friday and will play again at 8 a.m. PST Saturday against either No. 1 Stanford or No. 22 CSUN. The final two games of the weekend will be determined by the results of the first two rounds.

Communications Contact: Ben Blevins