By Eric Velazquez
Stars and Stripers Brush Past Netherlands, 6-5, in Semifinal Thriller
Sydney, Australia—Heading into these Games, the U.S. women’s water polo team had a three-point plan.
First, get into the semifinals. Second, to make it to the gold medal game. Point No. 3 was to win that game and take the shiny hardware home. Two down, one to go.
Team USA held reigning FINA Cup Champion Holland scoreless in the second half, earning a 6-5 win and a trip to the gold medal game tomorrow (Sept. 23) against Australia. “This is indescribable,” said head coach Guy Baker. “This just feels great. It’s incredible.”
The U.S. will be taking home gold or silver after tomorrow’s contest with their Olympic hosts at Sydney International Aquatic Center, which has sold out its 17,500 available seats. “It’s going to be crazy,” said Baker. “There’ll be 17,500 people there, with about 15,000 of them rooting for Australia, but once any arena gets loud, it’s all the same.” Except that this time, there’ll be just a bit more on the line. “I always say that when it’s all over, it’s still just a water polo game,” said 39-year-old veteran Maureen O’Toole. “But obviously, the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been. It’s huge.”
The U.S. didn’t get into tomorrow night’s gold contest the easy way. Standing between Team USA and the big dance was Holland, the reigning World Cup Champion and winner of more international titles than any other program. But the U.S. drew first blood on the game’s first possession on a turnaround shot from set by O’Toole. The crafty veteran extended the lead to 2-0 on USA’s next possession, catching a brilliant pass from Robin Beauregard and firing it past Holland goalkeeper Karla Plugge from two meters.
USA led 3-1 after Coralie Simmons’ first goal of the night with 3:04 to play in the first, but the Netherlands went on to score the game’s next four goals for a 5-3 lead. Simmons pulled the U.S. back to within one shortly before the half with her second goal of the night.
The U.S., looking but unable to find the tying goal for the first half of the third quarter, finally evened things up at 5-5 on a goal by Robin Beauregard from the lefthander’s position with 3:58 on the clock.
The impasse was shattered early in the fourth quarter when Heather Moody scored what amounted to be the game winner at the 6:09 mark. The U.S., looking for an insurance score, came up short the rest of the quarter, at one time missing three shots on one trip down the tank. But Baker’s defensive strategy quieted the ferocious Hollander offense to a whimper, holding them to three shots in the last six minutes.
A stoppage of play occurred with 3:22 on the clock when Heather Moody came up bleeding from her nose, having caught an elbow in transition. She was substituted for, and play resumed. Unfortunately for Holland, the sight of Moody’s departure from the pool only served to tighten the American defense.
With just under a minute remaining, Holland’s Carla Quint broke free from a defender at set, firing a point blank shot at U.S. goalkeeper Bernie Orwig.
Orwig, however, came up with the save, sending the sizeable American spectator contingent into a frenzy at the Ryde Aquatic Center.
“I was so focused at that point,” said Orwig, of her game-saver. “One of our players (Moody) was hurt, so I was a little fired up. There was no way I was going to let that go in.”
The U.S. held on for the duration, and will now move on to face Australia in the gold medal game tomorrow night, first sprint at 9:15 p.m.
“I think it’s going to be a great game,” said Baker. “We’re very similar in the way we play the game. May the best team win.”
In other games:
Australia 7, Russia 6: Australia scored three goals in the final quarter to cap off an extraordinary comeback over Russia and secure a spot in the gold medal game.
Canada 9, Kazakhstan 8 (OT): Canada maintained its habit of finishing regulation time in a tie, but managed to top Kazakhstan, 9-8, for fifth place in the tournament.
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