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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

The Defense Can't Rest

Water polo: Harvard-Westlake must slow All-American Azevedo to stop No. 1 Wilson in Southern Section Division I final tonight.

November 25, 1998|PETER YOON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The name of the game is defense for the Harvard-Westlake High water polo team.

And for the Southern Section Division I final at 7:30 tonight against Long Beach Wilson at Belmont Plaza Pool in Long Beach, it means stopping All-American Tony Azevedo of Wilson and stopping everybody else.

Sounds simple right? Not so fast.

Top-seeded Wilson (26-0) is defending division champion. The Bruins have lost just once in the last two seasons.

Harvard-Westlake, seeded No. 3, is making its first section final appearance since finishing runner-up in 1992.

Wilson is a heavy favorite, having defeated the Wolverines, 10-2, in a nonleague game earlier this season, and if Harvard-Westlake is to have a chance, goalie Joe Axelrad and All-American Peter Hudnut must play the games of their lives.

Hudnut because he is charged with defending Azevedo; Axelrad because he must stop everyone else.

"Joe is gonna be tested," Coach Rich Corso of Harvard-Westlake said. "Tony knows to test the goalie early and often. He likes to shoot and Joe's gotta be there to meet him face to face."

Corso likens the Wolverines chances of defeating Wilson to those of North Carolina State against Houston in the 1983 NCAA men's basketball final, Villanova against Georgetown in the 1985 men's basketball final and the USA against the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympic hockey semifinals.

But he reminds the Wolverines that those underdogs won, and he has all the confidence that Axelrad, who made 20 saves--including one on a penalty shot--in a 7-4 semifinal victory over Foothill last week, is prepared for the challenge.

"He's playing great right now," Corso said. "He's done a lot of maturing this year.

"We gotta keep him loose. If a ball goes in that maybe should have been blocked, we gotta keep him loose. But he's positioning himself very well."

Axelrad, a junior, had big shoes to fill in goal when Brendan Connolly, a Times' All-Valley selection a year ago, graduated. Trying to fill those shoes led to some self-imposed pressure at the beginning of the season.

"Brendan was my mentor, he still is," Axelrad said. "I learned so much from him. But I finally realized that I'm not Brendan. He's an incredible goalie and I still look up to him, but I finally realized how to play my own game."

Hudnut said he's noticed the difference.

"He's got the experience now," Hudnut said. "In a sport like water polo experience is what helps a player step up to the next level."

Axelrad admits the challenge is going to be great tonight, but insists the pressure is not all on him.

"They are a pretty offensive team but we have some pretty good defenders," he said. "I have a lot of confidence that our guys can stop them before they even get to me."

Enter Hudnut.

He is one of only two high school players selected to the Junior National team last summer and is widely considered to be the top high school senior in the nation.

The other high school player named to the Junior National team is Azevedo, who is a junior. He is widely considered the best high school player in the nation.

"With Tony, you never know what's coming," said Hudnut, who considers Azevedo one of his closest friends. "I know he's always thinking about new things to try so that keeps me thinking about things I can do to defend him. The only person I ever played against that made me think that much is Jim Toring."

Toring, a four-time All-American at Harvard-Westlake, was hit by a bus and killed while traveling in Paris with the U.S. National team last summer.

The challenge of containing Azevedo is great, and while Hudnut is the one who will guard him, he can not defeat Wilson just by shutting down Azevedo.

"They have so many other people," Hudnut said. "Our team defense needs to come through in order for me to guard him successfully."

The Wolverines know Wilson well. While they have met just once this season, Corso and his players have studied their formidable opponents in great depth.

"Wherever they go, I'm there," said Corso, who coached the 1996 U.S. Olympic team. "I scouted them like an Olympic opponent. I've seen them in blowouts, close games and when they were losing."

As for the lopsided result the last time these teams played? The Wolverines believe tonight will be a different game.

"We have improved at least 100% since then," Hudnut said. "In just about every area."

Added Axelrad: "The previous game we didn't execute the game plan. We're a better team now, more finely tuned."

After the 1996 Olympics, Corso was able to devote his full attention to the Wolverines and the results have been encouraging.

In 1996, his team lost in the quarterfinals. In 1997 it lost in the semifinals.

Now the Wolverines are where they want to be and, surprisingly, playing exactly who they want to play.

"We take every game seriously," Axelrad said. "But in the back of our minds there's always been Long Beach Wilson and now it's paid off."

Division IV final

Top-seeded Ventura, which won six games from 1994-1995, is looking for is first title against second-seeded Righetti at UC Santa Barbara tonight at 6.

Senior Chad Caldwell, an All-Division IV selection last year, and junior Mike Derse, the team's defensive specialist, lead the Bulldogs (26-1).

This game pits teams that have been atop the Division IV rankings for most of the season.

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