With the 1996 Summer Olympics knocking at the door, the U.S. water polo team needed a strong showing Saturday against Italy, the defending champion.
Paced by four goals from Chris Humbert, the U.S. team delivered a 10-8 victory in the first of two exhibitions at Corona del Mar High.
"It's just good for our confidence, we haven't beaten these guys in a couple of years," Humbert said. "Everyone was saying we can't beat them, but now we know that we can."
U.S. Coach Richard Corso said the victory shows the progress his team has made since the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
"When you look at the success their program has had over the last couple of years, European champions, World champions, and we've been progressively making progress since Barcelona in '92," Corso said.
Until finishing second to Hungary at the World Cup in September, Italy had won every world championship since capturing the gold medal in Barcelona.
The U.S. team, meanwhile, finished sixth in the world championships this year and fourth at the World Cup. "And that's where we want to be positioned going into Atlanta," Corso said.
The U.S. team took command Saturday with a potent counterattack in the third quarter, outscoring Italy, 4-2, to take a three-goal lead.
Rick McNair took advantage of an ejection and scored for the U.S. team a 6-5 lead. The United States then forced two turnovers and scored twice in 30 seconds off counterattacks for an 8-5 lead.
The U.S. team appeared to wrap up the victory when Kirk Everist scored his second goal with 2:51 remaining for a 10-6 lead, but Italy forced several turnovers in the final minutes.
"I was real happy in the third [quarter] because the goals were being generated from our front-court defense," Corso said. "Where we need work and where they tried to exploit our weaknesses is, how do we continue to attack and protect the lead at the same time."
The U.S. faces Italy again at 7 p.m. Wednesday.