One Can Only Imagine
Jan. 22, 2007
Imagine competing against your Big Ten rival knowing that there is no coveted Big Ten Championship waiting to be won.
Imagine having to fly four hours or charter a bus for 12 hours to compete each week against the competition.
Imagine what it's like to convince a young woman from the West to head East and trade practicing outside under the sun for practicing inside under a roof.
And then imagine having to get a horse in and out of the campus pool.
With exception of the latter image, which is a common misperception of people not familiar with the game, one can begin to understand the challenges Barry King and Matt Anderson face as respective head coaches of the Indiana and Michigan women's water polo programs.
Water polo is one of six women's sports that are not officially sponsored by the Big Ten Conference, yet both Indiana and Michigan have each experienced a significant amount of success over the years. The two schools are members of the Collegiate Water Polo Association and compete in conference action against teams such as Princeton, Harvard, Maryland, Hartwick, Brown and Bucknell.
The Hoosiers added water polo as a varsity sport in 1998 in an effort to comply with Title IX standards. King, who was promoted as the program's first and only head coach after supervising the club team in similar duties since 1994, originally came to Bloomington from Fresno, Calif., in search of his doctorate degree. At that time, his thesis could have been focused on understanding how a new team from the Midwest could compete with more prevalent programs from both coasts.
"The toughest challenge is by far the geography because you are not located where the majority of the potential student-athletes are," said King. "We don't have any in-state athletes, so recruiting is the biggest challenge we face, probably more so than any other sport that has in-state feeders."
King also notes that due to Indiana and Michigan being the only two varsity teams in the Midwest, scheduling becomes even more important so his Hoosiers can compete out West in front of potential recruits. Currently, 12 of the 17 student-athletes on the Hoosiers roster are from the West and Southwest coasts. For King, however, the challenge of recruiting also presents an opportunity for California kids to attend and play for a school out of state.
"For Indiana in particular, the campus is unlike anything they could experience in California," he said. "The size and the magnitude of the campus and school, integrated in a relatively small town, is not available to them in California. The challenge for them is that they realize there are opportunities for them outside California. It requires them to think upfront about what they want to do with their college experience."
In the first nine years of the program, King has helped IU to four appearances in the national championships, including an NCAA appearance in 2003 and appearances at nationals in each of the Hoosiers' first three seasons as a varsity squad. The 2001 season marked the first year the NCAA sponsored the women's water polo national championship.
Anderson, who began serving as an assistant under King in 2001, was a California native himself who ventured to Bloomington to experience Midwest water polo. Despite having moved from San Jose, Anderson was not at all shell-shocked by the Midwest lifestyle as both his mother and sister attended Michigan State.
"I was blessed to have that Big Ten atmosphere to grow up around, even though I lived out West," Anderson said. "When I had the opportunity to go to Indiana, I wanted to get grounded in the Midwest. Barry understood what I wanted and we developed a really good friendship and relationship. That connection allowed me to get the Michigan job, although he probably didn't mean for me to get the job this fast."
"I hired Matt because he was an incredibly quality coach and knew he would help us a lot," King said. "The Michigan thing happened quicker than both of us expected and to his credit, he made the most of the opportunity and has done a really good job with it.
Hired in October of 2002, Anderson continued the success of the Wolverine program, compiling a 110-45 (.710) record with four CWPA Division titles in his four seasons. Over the past three years, he has been tabbed the Western Division Coach of the Year.
But while Anderson coaches in a state that sponsors high school water polo, unlike Indiana, he still faces the same challenges that King does in the recruiting wars.
"The challenge has nothing to do with the name Michigan, because the majority of the people are aware of the school, Big Ten academics and Big Ten athletics. It's easy for someone to listen to Michigan," said Anderson. "The challenge becomes the high level of academics in the Big Ten, the out-of-state tuition, and the weather. It's two-fold. When a person reaches college age, they want to try something totally different, by way of getting out of state and exploring things, or they want to stay close to home and attend the school they have dream of going to. But the name Michigan is known worldwide and people have a passion for this university. Those are the kids we want."
Fortunately for both Anderson and King, they did not have to comb the California coastline to find the face of their respective programs. While Anderson did not recruit All-American goalkeeper Betsey Armstrong, he inherited the Wolverines following her freshman year.
A native of Ann Arbor, Armstrong came to Michigan from nearby Huron High School and competed four years as the Maize and Blue's standout goalkeeper. Throughout her stay at U-M, she earned All-America status each season and retired as the NCAA career leader with 1,266 saves. She also set Michigan records with a goals against average of 5.62 and a .654 save percentage.
Armstrong, who currently serves as the starting goalkeeper on the U.S. National team, noted staying close to home and being able to contribute immediately to a new program was key in her decision.
"Our team was a brand new program and we were the newest addition to the great history of Michigan athletics," said Armstrong. "To be able to have the opportunity to play for this school was really exciting."
While her decision seemed relatively easy to make, Anderson feels his goalkeeper made much more of an impact by just signing on to play for the Wolverines.
"She did not realize it at the time, but for her to not head West to the established programs and instead stay home and go to Michigan, was not just huge for Michigan and Indiana water polo, but all the Eastern schools as well," Anderson said. "She was arguably the best player in that year's recruiting class and went to a Midwest school instead of a USC, UCLA, Stanford or Cal. Because of that, she raised the level of competition and helped programs outside California earn respect."
And now, Armstrong remains confident she can earn a spot on the 2008 Olympics squad, even though she is the only player on the U.S. roster that attended a university outside of California.
"I think about competing in the Olympics every day," she said. "It has always been one of my lifelong goals, but it has definitely been hard."
At Indiana, King found his top star three hours from home in Cincinnati, Ohio.
The Hoosiers' most accomplished water polo player, Kristin Stanford finished her career in Bloomington as a three-time All-American and the school's record holder for single-season (73 goals) and career (246) scoring. During her senior season in 2003, Stanford was named second-team All-America and was the only player outside of the state of California represented on the first, second or third teams.
"Respect and recognition is still something (the Midwest and Eastern teams) are struggling for today," Stanford said. "Indiana has an impressive swimming history, which does get noticed by recruits. And it helps to have West Coast kids looking for a change in scenery that come out here to play as well. But you have to earn respect and that means you have to compete against the best. During my career, the more we came out West to play, the more respect we got. We began beating top teams like UC-Santa Barbara, San Jose State, Cal and Hawaii, in addition to playing the powerhouses like Stanford and USC."
Respect was earned in 2003 as Stanford scored a school record 73 goals and led the Hoosiers to their coveted NCAA berth. She went on to finish her career ranked in the top five in goals, assists and steals, but also left an impression in the classroom. Stanford earned her undergraduate and masters in exercise physiology at Indiana and worked for three summers during her playing career at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffitt Field, Calif. She is currently in her third year of grad school for a doctorate in biomedical sciences at UC-San Diego.
"She is the epitome of our program and is an example of what Indiana does really well," King said. "She lacked experience when she came to us, but had a work ethic that was unrivaled. The combination of what we had to offer and what she brought to the pool each day, turned her into a three-time All-American and a student-athlete that anyone would be proud to associate with their team."
And while Stanford was never a part of a Big Ten Championship team during her career, she did receive the conference's oldest and highest distinction as Indiana's Medal of Honor winner in 2003. Stanford's award came just one year after Molly Fonner earned the honor - a true sign that despite water polo not being a sponsored sport by the conference, these were still Big Ten student-athletes.
"Winning that award was really an honor because we were not a Big Ten sport," Stanford said. "With Molly receiving the award the year before, I think that says a lot about the team success and Barry that we were recognized by both the school and the Big Ten."
Over the years, the Indiana/Michigan rivalry has been one that has caught the attention of water polo followers nationwide. Anderson likens the matchup in water polo terms to USC/UCLA or Cal/Stanford and even goes as far to compare the rivalry to that of Michigan and Ohio State in football.
"It's an established rivalry, which is good for an Olympic sport," Anderson said. "We both play Maryland and Princeton and the California schools, but Indiana and Michigan do not have an established rivalry with them. When we recruit out West, which is the hot bed, you try to get the kids engaged in the Big Ten. One of the draws beyond academics are the rivalries. Coach King and myself look forward to those games each year not only because it's a conference game, but it's the rivalry factor."
Yet King notes that Indiana can credit much of its success to Michigan, just as the Wolverines can give thanks to the Hoosiers.
"There wouldn't be any quality in the programs if there was only one," King said. "We were fortunate to be the first program to have (varsity status), but we knew we weren't going to maximize potential until someone else added the sport. When Michigan came along, the natural rivalry helped the cause and now we both are consistently among the nation's top 15."
Regardless of the outcome when Indiana faces Michigan, both Anderson and King admit that one of the things that they have enjoyed most is the fact their friendship has survived the rivalry.
"When I was with Barry at Indiana, the top objective there was to beat Michigan. Now, it's to beat Indiana," Anderson said. "The difference is the strong relationship Barry and I have. When we leave the Indiana/Michigan game, it may take a few days, but we'll start talking again."
King laughs when he tells of what keeps the friendship going, saying that it succeeds even though others wish it wouldn't.
"What keeps our friendship intact is the people on the outside wanting us to dislike each other more," King said. "They want us to buy into the bitter rivalry thing. We both coach our teams to the fullest extent and our goal is to beat one another, but we like each other and we'll hang out when we are around. People focus on the school emblems we wear on our chest and want us to dislike each other. That just fuels our friendship."
This weekend will mark the 25th official varsity game between Indiana and Michigan when the Hoosiers visit Ann Arbor for the Michigan Kick-Off. It will be a new start to a new season, but the storylines will be the same. Both teams will take to the pool with three goals in mind: beat their rival, win the conference title and capture the ultimate goal of a national championship.
King believes that if four more Big Ten water polo club programs earn varsity status, which would then make the sport eligible for conference inclusion, national success would be evident.
"The gap from when we first started has certainly closed between East and West," King said. "There have been more varsity teams on the national level, a larger talent pool, and more kids willing to explore opportunities outside their region. Both Indiana and Michigan have played their way into the top six teams in the nation in the last four years. The potential is certainly there and we get closer every year to being in that mix. One thing that would really catapult the Midwest programs is if we could get more Big Ten schools to add the sport. It's a synergetic effect and if we had a true Big Ten Championship, combined with the conference's national reputation, we could be a force."
One can only imagine.