Aug. 16, 2004
"It was amazing. I was definitely nervous. I thought I was going to lose it during lineups," Kelly Rulon said after the USA women's victory over Greece, 7-6. The team's youngest player, Rulon drilled in her second goal for the game-winner. Not a bad birthday present for the now-20-year-old attacker. Bruin Natalie Golda also scored a goal to contribute to the team's victory. Considering the recent history between the U.S. women's Olympic team and Hungary, the women's Olympic opener was guaranteed to be tight. The two teams' June meeting in the FINA World League Super Final championship ended in a penalty shootout that was won by the United States. Monday in Athens, even though Team USA built up an early lead, the hot-handed Hungarians kept coming and took the lead in the fourth quarter, only to have the USA's blend of veteran and young talent tag-team its way to a 7-6 victory on Monday at Athens' Olympic Aquatic Centre Indoor Pool. Two-time Olympian Brenda Villa (Commerce, CA/Stanford/Commerce) notched her fourth goal of the game to tie it up 6-6 in the fourth period. Rulon's game winning goal followed. The pair also combined forces early in the game on the way to Team USA's 4-1 lead in the first frame. Villa rifled in a pair of goals around a successful Hungarian 6-on-5 strike to keep Team USA in the lead. Later, on a power play of its own, the USA extended its lead to two with a brilliant birthday goal from Rulon. Another Olympic newcomer, Natalie Golda (Fullerton, CA/UCLA/New York AC), ballooned the advantage to 4-1 with a perfectly placed lob that glanced off Hungarian goalie Ildiko Sos' hand and across the goal line with 46 seconds left in the first quarter. "Brenda's first goal set the tone," U.S. coach Guy Baker said. "In the first game of any tournament there's going to be nerves. You start to settle down after the tournament gets going, but I think she was a good example. She's been playing at such a high level consistently for such a long time. I think that she may have been the best player in the world this year." After Villa slapped down Hungary's first 6-on-5 attempt of the second quarter, Hungary recovered the rebound and ended up drilling a score from three meters out to make it 4-2 at the halfway point of the period. Hungary let fly another power play goal on its next possession, this one from Rita Dravucz to close in on the U.S. women for a 4-3 score at 2:28. Offensive opportunities were sparse for Team USA in the second quarter, as it was called for numerous offensive fouls and failed to get any good looks against the Hungarian defense. Team USA got it together early in the second half, however, relying on the sure hands of Villa once again on the 6-on-5, and the U.S. women was up 5-3. A save from U.S. goalie Jackie Frank (Long Beach, CA/Stanford/Golden West) sent Team USA off on a long-awaited counterattack. The opportunity passed by against the speedy Hungarians, and it wasn't long until Hungary was once again up on a power play. Mercedes Stieber nailed that possession for a 5-4 score that put the pressure on the United States to produce an answering strike. It didn't come. Instead, Hungary put away one last 6-on-5 in the quarter. Zsuzsanna Tiba sent in the equalizer on a nearside score from the right, leaving it locked 5-5 for the final quarter. Another power play failed for Team USA, and yet another went well for Hungary. Agnes Primasz nailed the go-ahead score for the Hungarians -- making it six goals off the power play for Hungary -- to make it 6-5. Again, Villa stepped up for the USA. She blazed in a crosscage score on the player advantage to pull into a tie. Her next 6-on-5 strike banged off the crossbar, but Team USA retained the possession. Villa later passed it off to Rulon, and she nailed her second goal of the game to the back of the net for a 7-6 lead with 4:25 left to play. Finally, Hungary missed on a power play, and the bar-out shot put Team USA on the attack in the final minute of action. Hungary had the final possession, but Tiba's last-second lob attempt hit the crossbar, securing the U.S. women's opening win. "The fortunate thing is that we matched them. Both teams were 6-for-9. But we could not stop their 6-on-5. We did a much better job in the second half. They all shoot the ball so well," Baker said of Hungary's six power play goals from the hands of six different players. "I'm happy with the game. We'll take the win. I thought we did a great job in the first quarter, going up 4-1, but we knew they were going to come back. We did a really good job mentally of not getting down on ourselves and had a good fourth quarter."