July 28, 2003
BARCELONA, SPAIN - The U.S. women's water polo team captured its first ever FINA World Championships gold medal with a well-played 8-6 win over reigning back-to-back World Champion Italy at Club Natacio Barcelona in Spain today (July 25). The win put an exclamation point on the team's progress since 1998, when it finished in eighth place at Worlds in Perth, Australia.
Well over 2,000 spectators, many of them cheering for Italy, turned out for the women's gold medal match.
Italy's Martina Miceli opened the scoring at the 5:34 mark of the first quarter, tossing in a lob from about six meters out on the left side. Ericka Lorenz (San Diego, CA/Cal Berkeley) got the U.S. on the board at 3:53, rocketing in a player advantage score from the perimeter to make it 1-1. Melania Greco netted a goal for Italy with 51 seconds left in the quarter to give the defending champs a 2-1 lead.
Early in the second quarter, the U.S. went to work on a 6-on-5 opportunity, evening the score when Lorenz buried a picture perfect cross-pass from Margie Dingeldein (Merced, CA/Stanford) to tie the score at 2-2. The U.S. took the lead on the next trip down when Lorenz and Dingeldein hooked up again in what looked like an instant replay of the previous score. Italy tallied the game's fifth player-up score at 2:51 when Miceli skipped one in from four meters out to make it 3-3 heading into halftime.
Ellen Estes (Novato, CA/Stanford) drew an exclusion to start the third quarter and got the ball back for an easy score to give the U.S. a 4-3 lead. Estes scored again on the next USA possession, whirling in a backhand from four meters out to bring up a 5-3 edge. USA defender Amber Stachowski (Rancho Santa Margarita, CA/UCLA/Golden West) was whistled for an exclusion in transition, sending Italy to a timeout at 4:40. The break paid dividends as Giusy Malato finished the 6-on-5 opportunity with a score from just in front of the cage at 4:30. Estes tossed in her third goal of the quarter just 19 seconds later, scorching a turnaround past Italy's Francesca Conti to give the U.S. a two-goal lead.
Miceli struck again for Italy at the start of the fourth, going high and cross-cage to bring her squad back to within one. But again, the U.S. answered, this time getting an outside goal from Robin Beauregard (Huntington Beach, CA/UCLA) to make it 7-5 with 5:36 remaining in the game. Lorenz made it a three-goal lead when she scored her fourth goal of the game at 4:25 after an offensive exclusion on Italy. U.S. attacker Brenda Villa (Commerce, CA/Stanford/Commerce Water Polo) was handed her third ejection at the 1:30 mark, setting up Malato's second goal of the night for Italy to make the score 8-6. Italy continued to press the U.S. on defense, but Maddalena Musumeci was tagged for an exclusion in the final minute, prompting a U.S. timeout to bring the ball to mid-tank. Franks' save on a desperation shot by Italy in the waning seconds sealed the victory and sent the U.S. to the top of the winner's podium for the first time in program history.
Team USA's previous best finish was third, accomplished four times between 1978 and 1990. The team finished in fourth place at the 2001 Worlds but came back to take silver at the 2002 World Cup. Having missed out on gold in two of the last three major tournaments, this was especially sweet for U.S. head coach Guy Baker and his squad.
"We've come close a couple of times, so it's nice to finally be called World Champions," said Baker in a well-attended post-game press conference.
Lorenz, who finished the game with four goals, was still in shock over the win, post-press conference.
"I can't remember the last time I had a game like that," she said. "But because of what was on the line here, this made it the best game of my life. We did our best out there today and came away with the gold."
Italian head coach Pierluigi Formiconi was humble after absorbing the loss and didn't take any credit away from the U.S. squad, saying "USA is the fair winner of this final."
"We played very bad and the U.S. played better," said Italian driver Tania DiMario. "And in this sport, the team who plays better usually wins."
The U.S. won't have much time to relish the gold before getting back to work. The team will move on to its first shot at Olympic qualification in next month's (Aug. 3-11) Pan American Games in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.