ATHENS, Greece, August 25. TEAM USA men’s water polo squad needed a win against to advance to the Olympic quarterfinals two nights ago, but were outgunned by a weapons-heavy Serbia and Montenegro squad and can now finish no higher than seventh place. The U.S. women, gold medal favorites heading into these Games, saw their spot atop the medals podium fall into the hands of Italy after a bizarre whistle and a heartbreaking goal yesterday and will now compete for bronze. Both teams, stunned and disappointed after their games, have since compartmentalized the losses and are focused squarely on the matches ahead.
Early in these Olympics, the U.S. men, chiseled into shape by their iconic coach Ratko Rudic, played like a team possessed, sending the media into a typing frenzy and shivers down the spines of established water polo teams like Hungary, who didn’t want to be upstaged by a younger, hungrier squad.
Team USA, grouped in the tougher of the two brackets with World and Olympic champion Hungary, No. 3 Serbia and Montenegro, world powers Russia and Croatia and an inexperienced Kazakh team, posted wins in its first two games and looked to be on its way to a spot in the next round. But consecutive losses to Hungary, Russia and Serbia and Montenegro bumped the U.S. out of medal contention.
The U.S. fell behind early in its contest with Russia, but rallied back to within striking distance in the second half. A win would have put the team in great shape for advancement, but a few bad breaks, calls that never came and some missed opportunities paved the way for a 9-7 Russia win.
The loss to Serbia and Montenegro was the toughest to swallow, knowing that a medal was officially out reach. A frustrated but composed Wolf Wigo (New York, NY/Stanford/New York AC), playing in his third and final Olympics, best captured what would happen next for his team: “It’s hard to work this hard for so long and not get a medal. But we still have games ahead and can finish seventh, so we’re going to go out and get up for our next game and do the best we can for our country.”
The U.S. women entered the Olympics with a whole new team and a whole new set of pressures, but played well en route to a first place finish in its bracket. Team USA’s one letdown in prelim play was a 6-5 loss to Canada in a game it led 5-1 heading into the fourth quarter. “We played 11 good quarters,” U.S. head coach Guy Baker said after pool play.
That set the stage for Team USA’s semifinal game last night (August 25)
against rival Italy. The U.S. built a 4-2 lead heading into the final quarter, but some slick shooting by the Italians and a few missed 6-on-5 chances allowed Italy to claim a 5-4 lead down the homestretch. The U.S. eventually recaptured the lead on a power move by Ellen Estes (Novato, CA/Stanford) at two meters and the game seemed destined for overtime. But a bewildering offensive foul call on Brenda Villa (Commerce, CA/Stanford/Commerce WP) by Croatian referee Zoran Tomic with 19 seconds left to play sent Italy on the final attack. Three passes later and with two seconds left on the clock, Italy had pulled off a 6-5 win.
Wide-eyed and still in shock, players ambled away from the pool deck. Villa, who at the time seemed most entitled to some hard feelings, was already beyond it. There was still a game to play.
“We came here to win a medal and we still have a chance to do that,” she told reporters. “Our focus has to be on the next game.”
The losses are certainly difficult to wrap one’s brain around and even harder to tuck away for the next game. The men spent the day after the Serbia and Montenegro loss with family and friends in Greece, away from the whistles and away from the crowds. The women had a team meeting and a good swim to recharge for the work ahead. It’s the Olympics. And while losing is harder to palate here than anywhere else, you can be sure that both teams will bring the noise in the games they have left.
And we’ll be watching.
USA Men to Face Aussies Friday
Australia plowed its way through Kazakhstan, 10-5, on Wednesday (August 25) to earn a meeting with Team USA on Friday (August 27). Australia got goals from eight different players in the win.
Team USA and Australia were in the same bracket for the 2004 FINA World
League, with the U.S. taking wins in three of four games. Australia topped the U.S., 11-9, in a July game in Long Beach, Calif., but finished the season 2-10 in fourth place in the group. The U.S. finished in third place with a record of 5-7.
Australia, coached by Erkin Shagaev, has some good perimeter players in Pietro Figlioli, Aleksandar Osadchuk and Thomas Whalan and can swim with most teams around. But Australia has also improved its physical game under Shagaev and has the potential to upset any team, as it did with a 14-10 win over Hungary during World League play.
Team USA and Australia will square off at 10:45 a.m. on Friday (August 27). The winner will face the Italy-Croatia winner for seventh place on August 29 at 10:45 a.m., while the losers of both games will play for ninth at 9:30 a.m.
Did Someone Say TV?
We know it’s been more coverage than you know what to do with, but there’s still more Olympic water polo heading to your living room courtesy of NBC and its seven Olympic carriers. While some programming is still in the works, here’s a peek at what’s on tap for now. All times listed are Eastern time.
Wednesday, August 25, 2004
Men’s Quarterfinals – MSNBC after 11:30 a.m. ET
Thursday, August 26, 2004
Women’s Medal Games – NBC at 12:40 p.m. ET
Friday, August 27, 2004
Men’s Semifinals – MSNBC after 11:30 a.m. ET
Saturday, August 28, 2004
Sunday, August 29, 2004
Men’s Medal Games – NBC at 5:00 p.m.
Airing of the U.S. men’s classification game against Australia has not yet been determined. The seventh and ninth place games are also still to be determined. Stay tuned for more details.