Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - June 24, 2011

U.S. men's water polo struggling to keep Olympic hopes alive

by Rick Eymer

Stanford grad Tony Azevedo and the United States national men's water polo team have a tough road ahead to the 2012 London Olympics unless the Americans can do something special over the next few days.

The U.S. dropped an 11-5 decision to Serbia on the final day of the FINA World League Super Final in Florence, Italy, on Thursday and will face a tough assignment in Friday's quarterfinal match against Montenegro.

The Americans, who have won only once in three pool-play matches, need to win all three games to secure the automatic berth into next year's Olympics and earn the $100,000 prize money.

The U.S. claimed its third Olympics' silver medal in Beijing three years ago and still looks to claim a spot among the sport's elite.

Azevedo, the team captain, hopes to participate in his fourth Olympics next summer. Stanford grads Peter Hudnut, Peter Varellas and Layne Beaubien are also looking to make the trip to London.

Azevedo scored his only goal against Serbia in the first period, tying the match at 1-1. It was all Serbia the rest of the way.

Azevedo scored four goals as the Americans beat China, 13-6, Wednesday morning after dropping a 10-4 match to host Italy a day earlier.

Azevedo scored the first goal of the contest against China and the U.S. never trailed, though it was close through the first half.

The Americans broke it open in the third period, with Hudnut scoring one of his two goals in the contest. Varellas also scored for the U.S.

Italy scored eight of the first nine goals of the match before Hudnut broke the string with 1:03 left in the third period.

Women's water polo

Two Stanford grads, two current Cardinal students and a future Cardinal were named to the FINA World Championship roster that will open competition in Shanghai on July 17 against the Netherlands.

They're hoping to help the U.S. national team repeat its gold medal performance in the FINA World League Super Final.

Grads Brenda Villa and Jessica Steffens will be joined by current players Melissa Seidemann and Annika Dries, and future Cardinal Maggie Steffens.

Stanford grad Lolo Silver, who played for the U.S. during the FINA World League Super Final, will not be playing in Shanghai.

The Americans also play Hungary and Kazakhstan in pool play before preliminaries begin July 23.

Villa has accomplished a lot of things in her water polo career, though winning an Olympic gold medal is not one of them. The United States national women's team captain has her team headed in the right direction though.

Villa celebrated her sixth World League gold medal (and third in a row) and added to her medal collection that has three Olympic medals, three FINA World Championship gold medals and a World Cup gold medal as the Americans downed Italy, 9-7, in the championship match of the FINA World League Super Final on Sunday in Tianjin, China.

Villa was named to the all-Media team with goalkeeper Betsy Armstrong after scoring twice in the final contest. Maggie Steffens also scored twice and Dries added a goal.

"It may not have been the most beautiful game, but in the end we showed great heart and character to come from behind and find a way to get it done," U.S. coach Adam Krikorian said. "Overall, I am pleased with how we performed defensively in this game and all week but we all know that there is still much to improve on heading into World Championships."

Team USA now looks ahead to the FINA World Championships.

"It's great preparation for everyone," Krikorian said of the experience. "All teams will now go back home and analyze the things they did well and not so well. They will make adjustments and bring their 'A' game to Shanghai."

The Americans have won all of the major events for the past two years — the 2009 World Championship, 2010 World Cup and three successive World Leagues. It's a good sign for things to come leading to next year's London Olympic Games.

"To come from behind and pull out a win shows a lot of character," Krikorian said. "We escaped with a win. We missed a lot of six-on-five chances. They had a lot of momentum going into the game."

Italy built a 4-3 advantage by halftime. The Italians, who did not win a single match in group play and yet advanced to the final, took a 5-3 lead early in the third period.

Dries and Courtney Mathewson scored consecutive goals to tie the game and Kelly Rulon added the go-ahead goal with four seconds to play in the third.

Italy tied the match at 7-7 with 4:47 remaining to play in the match. Villa put the Americans ahead to stay 50 seconds later. Steffens added an insurance goal with 2:16 left.

Team USA went 5-of-12 on power plays while Italy was 3-of-12. Australia grabbed the bronze medal with a 7-5 win over China, Russia earned fifth place with a 14-9 win over Canada and Greece topped Spain 14-8 for seventh place.

As for what the Super Final win means heading into the FINA World Championships, Krikorian wiped the slate clean.

"I have a short memory," he said. "You are only as good as your next game."

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