USA Men Finish Strong at FINA World Water Championships, Beat Montenegro 15-14

Hannes Daube Hayne
Hannes Daube scored the game winner Thursday against Montenegro. Photo Courtesy: USA Water Polo

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After a difficult FINA World Championships two years ago, when they finished a program-worst 13th and lost to Japan for the first time ever, the U.S. men’s water polo team finished the 2019 FINA World Aquatics Championships on a high note, taking ninth place with a victory over a Montenegrin squad currently ranked sixth in the world.

fina-gwangju-jul19The heroes of the Americans’ 15-14 victory today were many, but none bigger than Hannes Daube, who hammered the game-winner past goalie Slaven Kandic with 36 seconds left in the final period. With 10 ticks remaining U.S. goalie Alex Wolf followed with a huge steal on Montenegro’s Drasko Brguljan, sealing his team’s biggest win since a victory over Croatia last year at the FINA World League Super Final.

“I shot around [the defender’s] arm and the ball went on the post.” Daube said in describing his winning tally. “Confidence definitely starts with my teammates and my coach believing in me and the preparation coming up to this tournament.”

Chancellor Ramirez and Max Irving contributed fourth quarter goals to put the U.S. ahead 14-13 and help set the stage for Daube’s heroics. Johnny Hooper had a monster game with four scores, including a pair in the second period when the Americans jumped ahead by two. Ben Hallock was a force in front of the Montenegrin cage, scoring three times including once during a third period offensive explosion which saw both teams combine for eight goals.

For Montenegro, which has to be disappointed by the worst World Championship finish in program history, Aleksander Ivovic tallied six goals on seven shots. His teammates were a combined 8 of 26 on shots—a paltry 30%—a statistic that factors in a successful penalty conversion. Including a loss earlier this month in the China Wenjiang International Water Polo Tournament, Head Coach Vladimir Gojkovic has now lost consecutive games to Team USA—the first time this has happened since 2016.

More importantly, his team’s showing leaves Montenegro vulnerable in qualifying for the 2020 Olympics. The next opportunity for for Gojkovic’s to secure a berth at the Tokyo Games is at the European Qualification Tournament, next January in Budapest. There the team will have to compete with the rest of Europe—including the Croatians, who a surprising loser to Spain in a semifinal today—to get back to the Olympics.

The Americans have their own qualification woes to contend with, but—after a tournament where they won four matches and beat both Australia and Montenegro—Head Coach Dejan Udovicic and his staff must be feeling immeasurably better about the team’s Olympic prospects. From Gwangju the team will travel to Peru for the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, where they will look to take gold in the water polo competition and qualify for their eighth straight Olympics.


Luca Cupido, a star for the United States. Photo Courtesy: Tsutomu Kishimoto / FINA

Outside of his team’s strong performance, Udovicic had to be conscious of Brazil’s poor showing at FINA Worlds. Perhaps the American’s biggest rival in the region, the Brazilian squad coached by Ricardo Azevedo finished 13th, losing all of its matches in group play before rallying with two wins against New Zealand and Kazakhstan.

Canada, the region’s other contender, did not qualify this year for Worlds, instead sending a squad to participate in FINA’s inaugural beach water polo competition. Certainly, the Canadians had a close look at a committed U.S. squad that got strong contributions—as expected—from Alex Bowen (10 goals), Luca Cupido (hat trick, game winning-goal against Australia) and Hallock (11 goals). What makes the Americans potentially dangerous are its young players. Daube, who collected 11 goals in Gwuangju is just 19 years old, while his USA and USC teammate Marko Vavic is just 20. Alex Wolf has embraced his responsibility protecting the U.S. cage, and his former UCLA teammates Ramirez, Irving and Matt Farmer have provided Udovicic with necessary grit and desire that may have previously been lacking.

[The Bruin Tradition: UCLA Players Bolster US Teams for FINA 2019 World Water Polo Championships]

Coach Udovicic pointed to his young players as being decisive now and in the future.

“This is for our young players; it means more than just a win,” he said after the match. “It shows how we can go to this phase and win.”

[USA Men’s Water Polo At 2019 Pan American Games: Look Out for Brazil]

With their first game against Cuba on August 4 in Lima’s Andres Avelino Caceres sports complex, it remains to be seen how much of a lift Team USA gets from their success at FINA Worlds. At the very least, they proved that can compete against the world’s best; if they carry that confidence into Pan Ams, the American men will be tough to beat.

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