Aug. 15, 2004
Athens, Greece - Former Bruin goalkeeper Brandon Brooks led the U.S. men's Olympic water polo team to a 7-6 win over Croatia at the Olympic Aquatic Centre Indoor Pool on Sunday night in Athens. In the first half, Team USA pitched a defensive shutout behind a determined stand from Brooks (Honolulu, HI/UCLA/Los Angeles WPC), who was playing in his first-ever Olympic Games along with nine other members of Team USA. Croatia battled back in the second half before two-time Olympian Tony Azevedo (Long Beach, CA/Stanford/Long Beach Shore) fired in a buzzer-beating bullet to give the U.S. the crucial first win in its grueling Olympic schedule. When Team USA last faced Croatia, it registered a 12-11 win in a penalty shootout to move into the championship game of the Belgrade Trophy tournament. Their Olympic matchup threatened a similar overtime decision until Azevedo notched his third goal of the game. "We knew that Tony would take the last shot, we just didn't know if he would make it. You can plan for it, but you can't always expect a goal in that situation," U.S. coach Ratko Rudic said of Team USA's last strike. The first seven minutes of play passed with no offensive fireworks, but plenty of shining defensive moments. U.S. goalie Brooks grabbed one bar-down Croatian strike off the goal line, chased down a high-flying field block and notched a save on Croatia's final shot of the first quarter. The rest of the U.S. defense was equally stingy, throwing up key field blocks including a big one from Azevedo that squelched Croatia's second 6-on-5 chance of the period. Croatia's defense, however, put up a stiff stand as well. Team USA was unable to get off any good shots until Ryan Bailey (Long Beach, CA/UC Irvine/Newport WPF) busted through with a power play goal at 3:59 in the second quarter. Lining up on the top right on the 6-on-5, the two-time Olympian rocketed in the score to the high right corner, and Team USA had a 1-0 lead in its Olympic opener. "It felt very different," Brooks said of starting in the Olympic opener compared to the many other games leading up to the world's largest sporting stage. "All of the emotions of the last four years came to the surface. For the first half I felt like I was walking on water. I had a couple lapses, but any time that our defense lapsed tonight out offense stepped it up. We did what we planned to do." Man advantages went Team USA's way a little longer. On its fifth 6-on-5 of the game, the United States struck again from the top, this time at the hands of Jesse Smith (Coronado, CA/Pepperdine/New York AC). Another Olympic newcomer made his mark soon after. Again up on the 6-on-5 but without a lot of time to work with, Team USA mixed up its attack. Adam Wright (Seal Beach, CA/UCLA/New York AC) sailed a high pass to Jeff Powers (San Luis Obispo, CA/UC Irvine/Newport WPF) at two meters. Powers elevated to above hit suit, grabbed the pass and dunked it to the back of the net for a 3-0 U.S. lead with just four seconds left in the half. It took a four-meter penalty shot charged to Wolf Wigo (New York, NY/Stanford/New York AC) and converted by Elvis Fatovic for Croatia to finally get on the board in the second half. Soon after, however, a Croatian offensive exclusion put Team USA back on the power play. This one was sealed by another of the United States' returning Olympians. Azevedo drilled the score from the top left, pumped the U.S. men up to a 4-1 lead with 2:49 to go in the third. The deep deficit prompted Croatian coach Zoran Roje to call his second timeout on his team's next 6-on-5 opportunity. The regrouping worked. Croatian captain Ratko Stritof punched in the goal to make it 4-2 at 1:27. Brooks knocked down another late 6-on-5 chance for Croatia at the close of the quarter, leaving it at a two-goal game for the fourth quarter. Smith tacked up his second Olympic goal to open the fourth and give the U.S. its fifth successful power play. He got a little help from a Croatian defender, whose field block attempt went awry as it deflected the ball past Croatian goalie Frano Vican to make it 5-2 USA. Thirty seconds later, however, Croatia finished off a 6-on-5 of its own, again at the hands of Stritof. Now back within two, Croatia made the most of its next power play to cut the deficit to one on a score by Samir Barac. Azevedo kept Croatia out of reach for a little longer. From outside seven meters, Azevedo blazed in Team USA's first even goal of the game, making the U.S. lead 6-4. Stritof struck again for Croatia with 1:15 remaining to pull back within one, then set up for possibly its final possession of the game. Nikola Frankovic ripped in a long shot that Brooks couldn't stop. With 26 seconds remaining, Team USA went on the attack and earned an exclusion. Rudic called timeout and prepped his troops for how to approach the final 8.6 seconds. Azevedo got the call and hammered home the game-winner to start the Games off with a bang for Team USA. "It's good but it doesn't always mean much," Rudic said of the opening win. When I was coaching Yugoslavia, I lost the first game to the United States, but I ended up winning the final game. It would be great to arrive in the final game. But it was important because it will give us confidence heading into the next game." The game will be televised at 11:35 p.m. ET/PT on NBC. The U.S. men will get back at it on Tuesday (August 17) with a 4:30 p.m. game against Kazakhstan at the Olympic Aquatic Centre Indoor Pool. Kazakhstan (0-1) lost its opener against Russia (1-0) this morning, 5-2. Kazakhstan is a physical team with some good tools, but has been unable to post many wins in major international competitions. "They are the only team in our group that is a little lower, but not so low that you can underestimate them," U.S. coach Ratko Rudic said of Kazakhstan.