California has something of a stranglehold on collegiate women’s water polo. The state’s teams have won every NCAA national title since the first championship in 2001. But with the help of two sisters from San Francisco’s East Bay, the Wolverines are working to put an end to the Golden State’s dominance.
Michigan first appeared on Kim Johnson’s radar when Marcelo Leonardi, her Youth National Team instructor, became the Wolverines head coach in 2014. Looking to mine some West Coast talent, Leonardi offered a recruiting visit to Johnson, one of Northern California’s top players.
“I was offered a trip, and I kind of figured, ‘why not?’ I really didn’t know anything about Michigan before coming, but by the time I left I kind of knew this was the place for me,” said Kim. “A lot of water polo players decide to stay in California, but I really liked the idea of having a big school with a big spirit… everybody here is so proud to be a Michigan Wolverine.”
One elite player who decided to stay in California was Kim’s older sister, Danielle. The 5-11 utility player spent her first two seasons at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. But the school and the team weren’t good fits, so when Kim began raving about her Michigan visit, Danielle reached out to Coach Leonardi to express her interest.
“I had the itch to get out of state and I wanted that big college experience,” said Danielle, who transferred to Michigan in 2015 and redshirted the winter semester while Kim finished her final year of high school. “I started in the dead of winter. Going from L.A. to the brutal cold, I was just thrown into it. The lowest temperature that winter was around negative 20.”
Despite their objections to the weather (“I always prefer sunny and 75 to snowing and 10,” said Kim), the Johnson sisters have embraced the Wolverines culture and proved a godsend to the women’s team.
Headed into conference play this season, sophomore Kim and redshirt senior Danielle are No. 2 and No. 5 on the team in points (a combination of goals and assists) with 71 and 54, respectively. Last season, their first as Wolverines, Danielle earned Michigan Defensive Player of the Year honors and Kim was named the Collegiate Water Polo Association Rookie of the Year as the conference’s best freshman. Their efforts helped lead Michigan to a 2016 CWPA conference title and a spot in the NCAA Women’s Water Polo Championship, the first for the Wolverines in several years.
It’s been so fun (to play together),” said Danielle. “Last year, it was almost a proud big sister moment (when Kim) got awards like Rookie of the Year. It was fun to see her thriving. We have a very good chemistry; the higher percentage of my assists are with my sister.”
That chemistry offers promise for the remainder of the Wolverines’ 2017 season. Michigan is ranked No. 7 nationally, one of two non-Western programs among the NCAA’s top 10 teams. On the shoulders of Leonardi’s coaching and strong recruiting, the Wolverines have emerged as a women’s water polo powerhouse.
“I’m super excited and optimistic about conference play,” said Danielle. “All of our losses have been to top 10 teams and to teams higher ranked than us, and that’s super motivating.”
The polls are just as optimistic about the Wolverines’ chances to repeat as conference champions. Michigan is ranked No. 1 in the CWPA ahead of Princeton and rival Indiana. With a conference title, Michigan would gain an automatic bid to the NCAA Championship, where they finished among the final four in 2016.
“We just took a bunch of trips to California to play some high-caliber teams, but we’re transitioning more to playing the East Coast, now,” said Kim. “We’re ready to storm through the East Coast and Midwest.”
If the Wolverines can claim another conference title, the Johnson sisters could repeat what might be their favorite Michigan experience, thus far.
“We got to be in one of the end zones and honored during a timeout (during a Michigan football game),” said Danielle. “It was so much fun and energy. I was standing in the end zone, holding my sister’s hand … 100,000 people cheering for you. You’re not able to get something like that anywhere else.”