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With the NCAA Championships looming, a freshman goalie hopes to be the difference

Freshman goalie Heidi Ritner anchors the UM defense as they prepare for the NCAA Women’s Water Polo Championship

Heidi Ritner has been harboring a lofty goal: she wants to play goalkeeper for the U.S. women’s Olympic water polo team.

“It’s kind of a life dream,” said Ritner, the freshman standout for the No. 7 Michigan women’s team (28-8). “I started thinking about it a few years ago, but I kind of kept it to myself.”

Ritner’s recent play with the Wolverines has pushed that dream closer to reality for the 18-year-old from Newport Beach, California. On April 30, Ritner and the Wolverines squared off against No. 9 Princeton in the College Water Polo Association (CWPA) conference title game. Opposite Ritner at goalie was the Tigers’ Ashleigh Johnson, one of the nation’s top collegiate players – and goalie for the 2016 Olympic team that claimed the gold medal in Rio de Janeiro.

“Obviously, she’s an amazing goalie,” Ritner said of Johnson. “I almost get intimidated by her and look up to her.”

If Ritner was in awe of Johnson, it didn’t show in her play. Despite Princeton’s 11 power play opportunities, she stopped 14 shots in goal to lead Michigan to a 5-4 win and second straight conference title (photo gallery). Ritner allowed only 10 goals throughout the three-game tournament, resulting in a CWPA All-Tournament Second Team selection.

“I did feel in the championship game that it was Heidi versus Ashleigh Johnson, save for save,” said Michigan coach Marcelo Leonardi. “She had to make more critical saves when we were down a player. …You know, where most of the time a goalie will look at the other side and go, ‘Oh, there’s a better goalie.’ No, they were both on a level playing field.

Freshman goalie Heidi Ritner

While Ritner’s play at the tournament might have been her most high profile showing, it was hardly a breakout performance. Throughout the season, she’s exceeded expectations normally placed on freshmen. As a result, the Michigan Athletic Department named her Rookie of the Year for being the university’s top female freshman student-athlete.

“Usually, when you get a freshman starter in the field, you can hide their deficiencies… but with a goalie, there’s four quarters, there’s no errors where you can hide them,” said Leonardi. “I feel like Heidi came in prepared to play four quarters every game this year, almost like a veteran.”

“She hasn’t had the bad games as a freshman that you’d kind of expect,” said teammate and fellow freshman Maddy Steere. “She just comes in, she takes control, she steps up.”

Ritner and Steere, a defender from Pascoe Vale, Australia, have formed something of a freshman defensive wall for Michigan. The two not only share space in the pool, but are also roommates, making for a rapport that resulted in second and first team All-Conference honors this year.

“I think having Heidi in goal has really helped us stay on the same page on defense,” said Steere. “Once you have a really calm goalkeeper, it makes you feel really confident on defense to be able to execute at a high level.”

Ritner and the rest of the Michigan squad were undefeated in conference play, thanks in large part to the Wolverines’ stingy defense. But the competition should intensify as they head into NCAA championship play Friday against No. 3 USC (28-3), the defending national champions (2017 tournament bracket).

“We played them twice before… (at that point) we held them to their lowest scoring point so far this season,” Ritner said of USC. “We’ve played everybody in the top four at least once. … I, for sure, am an optimist going into this.”

With Ritner in the cage, Leonardi is confident of the team’s chances, as well.

“I feel that when you get past that athleticism, that explosiveness, and just her level of intelligence to read things, she’s also a gamer,” he said. “She’s that silent assassin that when you need big stops, she’s there.”