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Ring Master

Tony Azevedo Hopes to Lead Long Beach Wilson to a Fourth Straight Water Polo Title and Play in the 2000 Olympics

November 11, 1999|GARY KLEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tony Azevedo returned to the Long Beach Wilson water polo team in October after playing for the U.S. national team through the summer and early fall.

And though opposing coaches, players and certainly Azevedo would never say so publicly, Azevedo's return makes Wilson an overwhelming favorite to win a fourth consecutive Southern Section Division I title when the playoffs begin today.

Azevedo, a 6-foot-1, 193-pound senior who turns 18 Nov. 21, is regarded as the best U.S. high school water polo player in the history of the sport. Last year, he made the national team. In September, he became the youngest player to represent the U.S. in the FINA World Cup. He is expected to play in the 2000 Olympics at Sydney, Australia.

"My goal is not just to make the Olympic team, but to make an impact," Azevedo said. "If I keep working hard, I can do that."

Azevedo's becoming an Olympian almost seems predestined. A drawing of his family tree would include interlocking rings of the Olympic flag.

Five members of Azevedo's family--including his father Ricardo, the water polo coach at Long Beach State--have competed for Brazil in the Olympics.

His great-great grandfather was a gymnast in the 1908 Olympics, two of his great aunts were swimmers in the 1936 Games, his uncle swam in the 1972 Olympics and his father played water polo in the 1976 and 1980 Games and was an assistant coach for the U.S. team in 1992 and '96.

"No one ever said, 'You have to be an Olympian,' " said Azevedo, who plays driver for the national team. "It just always seemed like a great thing to try and be a part of."

Azevedo has been a part of the U.S. water polo scene almost from the time he was born. When Ricardo was an assistant coach for the U.S. junior national and men's teams, Tony was a constant presence on the pool deck.

"I remember once we were watching a game at the junior Pan Am Games," said Rich Corso, who coached the U.S. national team from 1992 to '96 and the 1996 U.S Olympic team. "Tony was like any other player on the team--he was looking straight ahead and was focused on the game as if he was suiting up for it.

"And he was 6 years old."

Azevedo started playing water polo when he was 8. He also played other sports but told his father at 11 he wanted to pursue water polo.

"I've always been a student of the game," Tony said. "I liked watching game videos, going on trips, anything having to do with the sport. I was always driving my dad crazy asking him questions. But he always answered them."

Ricardo Azevedo, who came to the U.S. from Brazil as an exchange student in 1974, coached Wilson to four Southern Section titles, including the last three in a row, before taking the Long Beach State job in February.

"Tony has tremendous drive, he motivates himself," Ricardo said. "My job has been to basically point the way and show him some things.

"I always think that if you set goals and make sure they're obtainable, the kids will rise to the level they are trying to achieve. That's what Tony is doing."

Azevedo missed the first month of the season while preparing for and competing in the world championships in Sydney. Wilson lost twice to Newport Harbor during his absence, but the Bruins benefited.

"He left a void no one can fill, but it was a positive thing because some of our other players were forced to step up athletically as well as in leadership roles," Wilson Coach Tony Martinho said. "Now that he's back, we're that much better."

Wilson opens the Division I playoffs against Encino Crespi. The Bruins' biggest challenge will probably come from second-seeded Newport Harbor, North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake or El Toro.

But those teams know that beating Wilson with Azevedo is almost impossible.

"You can always feel his eyes," Corso said. "He may be looking 180 degrees away from the goal, but he still smells the goal and feels the goal."

Said Newport Harbor co-Coach Bill Barnett: "You can't negate his ability. Basically the difference between Tony and other players is like the difference between a shooter for the Los Angeles Lakers and a high school player."

Azevedo will graduate from Wilson in January and begin preparations for making the Olympic team. He expects to decide on a college--Long Beach State, Stanford, UCLA, California, Pepperdine and USC are in the running--by February.

"When you play on the national team and internationally, you know there are guys that are better than you," he said. "You can't be a great player if you think you don't have anything left to learn anymore.

"I still have a lot to learn."

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