European Jaunt Proves Fruitful For U.S. Men’s Water Polo Team

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An oft-repeated exclamation! Over 12 matches the U.S. averaged double-digits. Photo Courtesy: FINA

Concluding a month-long overseas odyssey against mostly European competition, the U.S. Men’s Senior National Water Polo Team finished up on a winning note. Yesterday at the 2018 Benu Cup, Team USA thoroughly out played Romania for a 12-1 win at the Alfréd Hajós Arena on Margaret Island in Budapest, Hungary. The win made for a successful early summer excursion for the Yanks; they earned a 7-5 record over three weeks of competition and—most importantly—a maturing roster of American athletes gained experience essential for a run to the 2020 Olympic Games.

Their travels began and ended in Budapest. Facing two of the world’s top teams in pool play for the 2018 World League Super Final, on June 18, Dejan Udovicic’s squad captured a gritty 8-6 win over Spain, then completed a 3-0 opening round sweep two days later with an electrifying 11-10 upset of world champion Croatia. Riding a wave of momentum into the quarterfinals, the Americans delivered an encouraging but ultimately losing effort, as it was upset-minded Japan that advanced to the medal round with a 11-10 win.

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Team USA’s McQuin Baron stood tall between the posts. Photo Courtesy: FINA

That set Team USA up for a rematch with Croatia—a 10-7 loss that dumped the Americans into a last-place match-up with Kazakhstan and an easy 9-3 win, good for seventh out of an eight team field. The finish did not tell the full story; goalie McQuin Baron enjoyed a fantastic tournament, while sharpshooter Alex Bowen demonstrated that he could beat any goalie in the world, finishing up the tournament with a total of 11 scores.

The Four Nations Tournament in Duisburg, Germany from June 29 to July 1 saw Team USA display a determined defensive effort that stunned Hungary 12-5. Host Germany brought the Americans back down to earth with 15-14 decision, but even in a loss there were silver linings. Max Irving registered four scores against the Germans a day after two goals against Hungary. After falling behind by three at intermission, Udovicic’s squad rallied, closing to within a goal after three periods and finishing just short of their hosts.

A 15-4 blowout against China saw the U.S. jump out to a 7-0 halftime lead, allowing the Yanks to coast to a comfortable win. Johnny Hooper of Cal was the man of the match, chipping in four goals, while Drew Holland saw action between the American goal posts, recording six saves in shutting out the Chinese in the first half.

Completing their vacation circuit, Team USA returned this week to Budapest for the Benu Cup with mixed results. Hooper (3 goals) and Irving (2 scores) continued their offensive outburst and UCLA’s Alex Wolf stood tall with 10 saves, but the Americans could not overcome Australia, dropping a 10-9 decision on Thursday. Friday saw the host Hungarians returning serve on their guests, taking a 9-7 win despite another Irving explosion (four goals) and a dozen saves from Baron, who returned to the U.S. nets after a three-match rest.

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Luca Cupido flashing his Olympic form. Photo Courtesy: FINA

The trip—ending with a thrashing of Romania—included a number of positive signs for upcoming tournament play. First and foremost was the amazing opening performance in World League play, only slightly dampened by a tough loss to Japan. Any time a team can beat the Hungarians—especially in Europe—is cause for celebration, and even a two-goal loss indicates progress.

Bowen lead all American scorers with 22 goals in the 12 matches, followed closely behind by Irving with 20 scores. Ben Hallock and Hooper each notched 13 goals.

In net, Baron piled up 67 saves in eight appearances, including double-digit saves against Croatia and Hungary (twice).

Udovicic and his players will return stateside with multiple questions to answer, including depth behind Hallock at center, the upside of Irving, who hopefully returns to Europe and continues honing his skills, Luca Cupido’s post-college career, and how youngsters Hannes Daube, a freshman at USC, and Marko Vavic, entering his sophomore year as a Trojan, continue to develop.

Perhaps most important is: where does McQuin Baron go from here? A professional contract would likely be the most desirable path, and his excellent European adventure may have sealed the deal with potential suitors—much like his teammates’ visit to the continent provided invaluable for a U.S. men’s coaching staff preparing their charges for Olympic qualification next year.