2018 Was a VERY Good Year for the U.S. Women’s Water Polo Team

December 16, 2018; Woollett Aquatics Center, Irvine, CA, USA; USA Water Polo Women's Exhibition Series: USA vs China; Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne for USA Water Polo
U.S. Women's Head Coach Adam Krikorian gathers his team before a match in California this month against the Chinese national team. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

When Team USA opened play at the 2018 FINA Intercontinental Tournament in Auckland, New Zealand by dropping a match to Australia by 9-8, it appeared that perhaps this might be the year that a dominant U.S. women’s water polo squad would come back to the rest of the international pack.

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As it turns out, that loss to the Stingers—bitter rivals the last three decades—was the lone setback experienced by the Americans this year. They went an astounding 33-1 and swept all major FINA tournaments in 2018. This stellar campaign is a fitting prelude to 2019, which will see the U.S.—two-time Olympic Gold medalists and reigning FINA World Champions—not only defend their Worlds’ title, but also look to qualify for a chance at a third-straight top Olympic finish at the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

The Yanks recovered from their April 3rd defeat—a day when Head Coach Adam Krikorian was missing mainstays Ashleigh Johnson, Maddie Musselman and Maggie Steffens—to run the table on the rest of their schedule, a streak of 31 straight wins.

December 14, 2018; Torrance Aquatic Center, Torrance, CA, USA; USA Water Polo Women's Exhibition Series: USA vs China; USA Stephania Haralabidis takes a 5 meter Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne

Lefty Stephania Haralabidis has become a critical performer for the U.S. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Some of the year’s highlights include winning the Intercontinental—and gaining revenge on the Aussies—four days later with a 10-7 finals win. Stephania Haralabidis and Kaleigh Gilchrist both recorded hat-tricks, while goalie Gabby Stone registered six saves as the U.S. secured a third Intercontinental title in four years (2015, 2016).

At the Kunshan Cup final in June, Team USA found itself facing another rival from its long and storied past: the Netherlands. The Americans trailed briefly before rallying for an 8-6 win behind Johnson’s 11 saves and a hat-trick from fellow Olympian Rachel Fattal. Beating a Dutch side that featured Sabrina Van der Sloot and Maud Megens was no small feat; the next month the Orange would sweep to a European Championship title behind Vivian Sevenich, Megens and Van der Sloot, who would cop MVP honors for the tournament.

And the Americans were just getting started.

USA Water Polo - Women - USA vs China

Kami Craig at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Photo Courtesy: Jeff Cable

Playing a series of friendlies in Budapest and Rotterdam in July, the Americans swept Hungary, Italy, Japan and Holland by an average margin of nine goals, with the closest match being a 10-4 win over the Italians. Three friendlies against Australia in California were not only lopsided in favor of the U.S., the final match on August 26th was 14-3 blow-out that celebrated the spectacular career of Kami Craig. The three-time Olympian—a silver medalist in Beijing who then won back-to-back gold medals in the London and Rio Games—announced her retirement following a 13-year career proudly wearing the Stars and Bars. Also announcing her retirement in 2018 was Courtney Mathewson, who won four NCAA titles at UCLA (2005-2008) then jumped on the Team USA bandwagon for consecutive Olympic golds in 2012 and 2016.

USA Water Polo - Women - USA vs Italy GOLD MEDAL GAME

A determined Courtney Mathewson in the 2019 gold medal match against Italy. Photo Courtesy: Jeff Cable

August saw the Yanks in Russia for the FINA World Cup. After a season playing professionally in Hungary, Maggie Steffens led a deep U.S. squad to its third straight world cup title. But Steffens—generally considered the world’s best female player—had considerable help from Haralabidis, Johnson, sisters Jamie and Kiley Neushul and phenom Paige Hauschild. The teenager  from Santa Barbara, CA, stepped into the attacker role vacated by the injured Mussleman, and proceeded to dominate on both ends of the pool.

December 22, 2018; El Torro High School, Lake Forest, CA, USA; USA Water Polo Women's Water Polo Exhibition Series: USA vs Netherlands; USA Paige Hauschild pressures Netherlands Simone van der Kraats Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne

Paige Hauschild is next in succession of great American attackers. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

The U.S. depth was simply too much for South Africa, Canada, China, Spain and then Russia in the Cup final. The hosts fell 8-5 as Steffens scored a hat-trick, Johnson registered 11 saves, and Jamie Neushul netted two goals, extending the American winning streak to 26.

The title capped a spectacular run of success the past five years, which includes ten-straight major titles: two World Championships (2015, 2017); three World League Super Final titles (2018, 2017, 2016); back-to-back World Cups (2018, 2016), the 2018 Intercontinental Cup and—of course—the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Five friendlies in California this month capped off arguably one of the most successful non-Olympic years for the U.S. women. First were two wins over the Chinese, who tested the American before succumbing 13-9 in the first match and then fell 14-2 in the second. In three straight wins over the Dutch, including a 12-3 decision on December 22nd, the Americans outscored their prime European rival 36-14—demonstrating that Team USA is ready for whatever challenges a new year has to offer.