Michigan Water Polo: Pillars Lead to Rise in Program

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Six team pillars developed by Dr. Marcelo Leonardi have contributed to the rise of the Michigan water polo program.

Culture, leadership, teamwork, accountability, respect and communication have been the driving force behind the Wolverines’ fast rise to No. 5 in the national rankings, matching the highest ranking in school history. The six pillars are printed on a wall in Leonardi’s office as a daily reminder.

While getting his Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) in educational leadership from Azusa Pacific University, Leonardi was tasked with writing a coaching philosophy during his class on motivation.

“Within my coaching philosophy I felt that there were six themes,” said Leonardi. “I looked at coaches like John Wooden and studied how they ran their programs. What emerged were our six pillars.”

When Leonardi took over the head coaching job at Michigan in 2014. He felt implementing all six would be tough with all the changes the team would have to go through. So in year one he introduced culture, leadership and teamwork. He wanted those three to get hammered in before implementing accountability, respect and communication in year two.

“Last year was a transition year,” said senior goalkeeper and communication studies major Julia Campbell. “Everything was new and we were learning how our pillars would be put into place. We are still learning what the pillars mean for our program but you can see our team grow and that is attributed to having those pillars.”

With all the changes made in the first year under Leonardi, Michigan finished the year at 19-13 with a 7-13 record against ranked opponents. Midway through year two, Leonardi has the Wolverines at 16-5 with a 15-5 record against ranked teams.

The amount of success from year one to year two has been surprising, although Leonardi thought they would see improvement. Just not this much.

“I thought that we were going to be good,” said Leonardi. “I just didn’t realize that we would be this good so quickly. I feel like the team has gelled and I think the talent is good, but I am surprised sometimes at our scores and some of the things we are doing to get to where we want to go.”

There have been several program-changing milestones in 2016 for the Wolverines. A win over Hawai’i, a 2015  NCAA Tournament team, gave U-M confidence. In the opening weekend of the season at Santa Barbara, U-M beat No. 8 San Jose State, 18-9, a team that nobody on the roster had defeated before. Now Michigan has beaten them three times this year.

At the Stanford Invitational, Michigan took third place, holding No. 10 UC Irvine to just two goals. At the UCI Invitational, the Wolverines earned just their second win over a top-five team in school history, knocking off No. 3 Cal, 7-5. U-M followed with an improbable sudden death victory over the host school UC Irvine to finish in fifth place with a 3-1 record, just one year after going 0-4 at the same high-level tournament.

At the UCI Invitational, junior Heidi Moreland, who scored the game-winning goal over UCI, described all those feelings as “wow moments” and Leonardi told the team that there is no limit to where they can go this year.

“Beating Cal was a surreal moment, but my ‘wow moments’ this year have been outside of competition,” said Leonardi. “Some of the practice sessions we have had, watching our seniors and how they are performing, conversations at team dinners, sometimes I step back and listen and it sounds like what I am preaching within their words. Those are my wow moments.”

Those “wow moments” have come from a team culture that has been developed. A culture of preparation and hard work in all facets of being a student-athlete. Focus and hard work for the duration of practice, taking care of yourself physically in weights and the training room, striving to be the best you can be in the classroom and the community.

“We always hold each other to the same standard,” said Campbell. “I think the culture of being a good teammate is something we have focused on. Also accountability to each other is huge for us. There is rarely a time in practice when I have felt like someone isn’t giving it their all. There is an unspoken understanding that we need to be accountable for every action because it affects the team.”

The culture put in place by Leonardi and assistant coach Caitlin Haskell has been amplified by the work of senior captains Kelly Martin, Emily Sejna and Ali Thomason. Each student-athlete has been terrific this season, leading in different ways and making sure a process is in place to truly be a team.

“From warmup to warm down, what we wear when we travel, the little things, that is what we think of when we say teamwork,” said Leonardi. “Also respect for each individual and the specific role they have on the team has really come from an open form of communication.”

Whether it is playing at a consistently high level, digging deep and finding a way to win, overachieving at times or even getting luck on their side, it is very rare to not slip up anywhere. The six pillars of the program have played a role in each of those big moments.

“I always thought our team would be successful, but if you would have told me in September we would be ranked No. 5 I would have been like ‘Are you kidding me?’,” said Martin. “I’m surprised at what we have been able to accomplish, but I think we can still get so much better.”

U-M will have one more weekend of competition before conference starts on April 2 against rival Indiana. With all the success Michigan has had so far, once conference play starts it is almost like a new season.

“Conference games are much more personal games, because you know that these are the teams you will see at the CWPA tournament,” said Campbell. “From our experiences, a lot of those games tend to be really close, because you are fighting for so much with those games.  There is a lot more emotion and a little more heart involved.”

Leonardi hopes the team’s consistent approach to living out the team pillars will help Michigan continue to have those “wow moments.”

“I can’t just shoot for the moon and say we are going to win a national championship,” said Leonardi.  “I feel like there is a process before you can win a national championship, making NCAA’s, winning a game at NCAA’s, that progression, but if this is the year where we make such a massive jump and the stars align, then why not?”

Swimming news courtesy of Michigan Water Polo.

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About Lauren Neidigh

Lauren Neidigh

Lauren Neidigh is a former NCAA swimmer at the University of Arizona and the University of Florida. She got her M.S. in Criminology from Florida State and seems exceptionally confused about which team she should cheer for during the college football season. Lauren is currently working on her M.A. in …

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