Aug. 30, 2004
Athens, Greece - The U.S. men's water polo team won't go home from these Games with any hardware, but there were plenty of indicators to suggest that they deserved some. After finishing fourth in a bracket where the top three teams advanced to medal games, the U.S. won its next two contests to take seventh place in the tournament. Today's 9-8 win over No. 2-ranked Italy before 4,215 fans at the main pool of the Olympic Aquatic Centre capped off a strong finish for the young American squad. The U.S. would like to have been in the medal picture, but was happy to finish the tournament with a solid showing against one of the world's top teams. Tonight, the three higher ranked teams in the U.S. bracket--Hungary, Serbia and Montenegro and Russia--and host Greece, will gun it out for their shot at Olympic medals. "The whole time we were saying that the top three teams in our bracket were going to get the medals," said USA driver Tony Azevedo (Long Beach, CA/Stanford/Long Beach Shore). "Italy's one of the top three teams in their bracket and somehow they didn't make it. A team like Germany we beat six out of six times. We play well against Spain. It just shows that if we were in that bracket, we probably could have come away with a medal. It shows that our team is extremely strong." Italy, another team who felt the ill effects of the new Olympic tournament format, slipped from its No. 2 world ranking down to No. 8, the steepest decline of any men's team in Athens. By this format, only the top three teams from each group advance, where in previous Olympics, the top four have progressed to the quarterfinals. Italy, who took silver just a year ago at the FINA World Championships, finished fourth in its bracket despite posting three wins in bracket play. "I don't really like the tournament format," said U.S. head coach Ratko Rudic. "And in our bracket, we had all three medal winners from the last Olympics and what will probably be the three medal winners from these Olympics. So it's difficult, but overall I'm pleased with how we played. We played well against Hungary, but Russia and Serbia were just better than us those nights." The U.S. was sharp all the way through a tight game under the sun at the Olympic Aquatic Centre's main pool, making some key stops and coming up with big shots when it needed to. Team USA forced Italy into a bad shot on its opening possession but Brandon Brooks' (Honolulu, HI/UCLA/Los Angeles WPC) resulting outlet pass was picked off at mid-tank by Alberto Angelini and walked in for an easy score to get Italy on the board first. The U.S. answered immediately, getting a goal from Azevedo on a drive to even things at 1-1. Italy's Maurizio Felugo connected on a spinning lob from 5:16 to put Italy back out in front, 2-1. Azevedo drew an exclusion in transition with just over four minutes to go, setting up a 6-on-5 goal from the top by Jesse Smith (Coronado, CA/Pepperdine/New York AC) to bring it to 2-all. A Smith field block later in the quarter yielded two USA shots on one trip down - one tipped out and one off of the crossbar - before Italy pushed the U.S. out of the attacking zone. Omar Amr (Fullerton, CA/UC Irvine/Newport WPF) found Layne Beaubien (Coronado, CA/Stanford/New York AC) with a nice cross pass to the left post for an easy score at the 6:15 mark of the second quarter to give the U.S. a 3-2 lead. Later in the quarter, the U.S. earned an ejection at two meters before Amr caught Alberto Angelini on his back at the left post for a four meter penalty call. Azevedo made good on the ensuing throw, rocketing his shot into the low right corner past Italian goalie Stefano Tempesti, giving the U.S. a 4-2 lead heading into the halftime break. Italy took all of 20 seconds to get on the board in the third quarter, getting a rollout, player-up score from Alessandro Calcaterra at the 6:40 mark to pull within one goal of the U.S. The tying goal came from lefty Bogdan Rath, who drove home a high, nearsider past Brooks at 4:02. Smith's second player-up goal of the game at 3:18 gave the U.S. the lead again at 5-4, but Italy's Francesco Postiglione snuck a redirect into the cage from the right post on a 6-on-5 the next time down to make it 5-5. Making good on another player-up opportunity, Beaubien took a pass on the right side and sailed the ball through Tempesti's arms to inch the U.S. ahead, 6-5. Postiglione's six-meter rip on Italy's first possession of the fourth quarter hit the crossbar and dropped in behind Brooks to tie the score at 6-6. Consecutive saves by Tempesti on the other end sent Italy back on the attack. Two attempts by Angelini--one on the counter and another in the front court offense--missed their mark by a hair and one by Postiglione sailed wide of the cage, but the U.S. came up empty on the resulting attack when an offensive foul was called on the perimeter. On the next trip down for Italy, Alessandro Calcaterra worked deep into the hole and spun his man before getting fouled by Brooks for a penalty call. Brooks stuffed Angelini's offering in the low left corner, but Angelini controlled the rebound and tossed it in to give Italy the lead. Azevedo went the finesse route from downtown on Team USA's next possession, connecting on a lob from eight meters out to knot things at 7-7. Another block by Brooks led to a crosscage, counterattack lob goal by Jeff Powers (San Luis Obispo, CA/UC Irvine/Newport WPF) to push the U.S. ahead 8-7. With just under a minute to play, Azevedo drew another exclusion in transition, prompting a timeout call by U.S. coach Ratko Rudic. After the chat, the U.S. worked the exclusion clock down and got the ball into the hands of Smith, who ripped the net from six meters with his third goal of the day to give the U.S. a two-goal cushion. But Italy wasn't done yet. Calcaterra made things interesting with a score around a defender from five meters out at the 22-second mark to make it 9-8, but the U.S. was able to protect the ball well and run out the clock for the remainder to hold on to the win. Turns out, that insurance goal by Smith was pretty important. "I was pumped about that last one because it's a lot easier if you're up by two in the final minute," said Smith. "Our plan there was to control the ball, so I wasn't really worried about scoring. I was trying to go for a high shot so it could get tipped out, but it went in." The team similarities were apparent as the game wore on, which actually worked in Team USA's favor. Perhaps it was their insider info on Italy courtesy of Ratko Rudic, who coached teams to a gold (1992) and a bronze (1996) there. "We knew that they'd be focused and they'd be coming out hard," Azevedo said of Italy. "And since Ratko used to coach them, they play a lot like us." Team USA finishes the tournament in seventh place, one off of its sixth place finish in Sydney where it lost the fifth place game to Italy. The team will return home tomorrow to get rested and recovered, with workouts expected to pick up again in October. Another Wigo on the Way? One of the most closely followed water polo stories at the Olympic Games was an unborn Wigo. Wolf's wife, Barbara, is at home, expecting the couple's first child any day. At the time of this release, Barbara and baby Wigo - a girl, Athena - hadn't officially met. Wigo will take part in closing ceremonies tonight and will board a flight home tomorrow. Hopefully, Athena can wait.