With 11-2 Win over Italy U.S. Women Sweep to USA Water Polo Holiday Cup Final

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USA's Rachel Fattal defends in a win against Holland earlier this week in Princeton. Photo Courtesy: Sherie Key / USAWP

PRINCETON, NJ. If this is the best the world can do against Team USA , they’d better try harder.

usawpIn a much-anticipated match at Princeton’s DeNunzio Pool between finalists in the 2019 FINA World League Super Final championship, the U.S. Senior Women’s Water Polo Teams faced the Italian national team in the 2019 USA Water Polo Holiday Cup. The last time these two met — last June in Budapest with a berth in the 2020 Olympics — the Americans fought off a tenacious Italian squad to claim a 10-9 victory and punch their ticket to Tokyo.

Friday’s Holiday Cup match was an entirely different story. Behind a brilliant performance by goalie Ashleigh Johnson (16 saves), Team USA (4-0) was never challenged, taking a 5-1 first half lead on their way to an 11-2 win over Italy (1-3) and a return match with the Netherlands (2-2) in the Holiday Cup Final Saturday morning.

Saturday’s matches: Russia vs. Italy and USA vs. Netherlands; both can be streamed via Facebook here.

Maggie Steffens had a hat-trick to lead the U.S., while Jamie Neushul and Maddie Musselman chipped in two goals apiece. Elisa Queirolo and Fabiana Marletta each had a goal for the Italians, who peppered Johnson with 29 shots to little effect. The American goalie’s biggest moment came half a minute before intermission after Italy had earned a 5-Meter penalty opportunity. As Roberta Bianconi prepared her aim, Johnson feigned left, causing the Italian shooter to drop the ball and flub her scoring opportunity.

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USA’s Jamie Neushul. Photo Courtesy: Sherie Key / USAWP

Johnson also stopped a five meter attempt by Sofia Giustini in the last few seconds of the fourth period, long after the match had been decided. It put an exclamation on an outstanding performance by the American, acknowledged by many observers to be the world’s best female polo player. She certainly was most dominant in the pool on Friday, as were her American teammates, who push, pull, grind and do whatever it takes to win.

Which, is all they have done for last two years. Team USA is on an epic winning streak that has now reached 67-straight since a 9-8 loss to Australia in April, 2018. And, there’s likely more to come in Saturday’s final. The Americans will face a Dutch side that on Tuesday pushed the world’s top squad to its limit before dropping a 23-22 decision on penalty shots. In that match, Sabrina Van der Sloot — Holland’s superb striker — had an opportunity to end Team USA’s streak when she faced Johnson, and a successful penalty shot would decide the match.

The American goalie, who last year was Van der Sloots’ teammate on the AS Orizzonte Catania squad, may have picked up some tendencies from that experience. She stopped Van der Sloot cold, preserving the tie and allowing teammate Kaleigh Gilchrist to extend Team USA’s winning streak.

[USA Water Polo Holiday Cup: US Women Escape with Win On Penalties in Sudden Death; Streak Now at 65]

In an earlier match, Russia overpowered Canada 9-7 to advance to a third-place showdown Saturday against the Italians. Maria Bersneva and Ekaterina Prokofieva each had hat-tricks as the Russians (1-3) earned their first win of the tournament after an overtime loss to the Netherlands and a loss to the U.S. Canada (1-3) — finishing last in Princeton after a strong showing in Montreal the previous weekend — was led by Gurpreet Sohi three goals and a pair of goals by Joelle Bekhazi.

[Hope Bubbles Up from Revived Canadian Women’s Water Polo Squad]

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USA’s Ashleigh Johnson. Photo Courtesy: Mariana Bazo

At halftime of the US versus Italy match, Mike Graff, outgoing board director for USA Water Polo, was honored for his long and valuable service to the sport’s national governing body in America.

[Mike Graff, Chairman of USA Water Polo, On The Record]

Bill Smith, long-time USAWP board member who is also the president of U.S. Aquatics Sports, gave his decades-long friend and fellow polo player the ultimate compliment.

“When the history book is written Mike will be seen as one of the most impactful leaders [USA Water Polo] has ever seen,” Smith said.

In his remarks, Graff — whose term ends at the close of 2020 – was brief but to the point: “Fantastic experience; really, really appreciate it.”