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SPORTS EXTRA: SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

Water Polo

U.S. Men Unlikely to Win a Medal, but Women Are Suddenly Making a Powerful Push to Be Contenders

September 10, 2000|HELENE ELLIOTT

MEN

* OVERVIEW--Men's water polo is one of the oldest team sports in the Olympics and will celebrate its 100th anniversary at Sydney.

Whether the U.S. will be celebrating, though, is uncertain. The men are considered a longshot to win a medal because of a tough draw and a deep field.

The U.S. was unfortunate to be placed in the same group as Yugoslavia, Croatia, Hungary, the Netherlands and Greece. All are perennial powers, and all are potential medal contenders. To break through, the U.S. will have to count on its physicality and solid defense and maximize its offensive potential. The U.S. finished seventh in the 1996 Atlanta Games, and six players will return from that team.

Chris Humbert, a 6-foot-7, 235-pound two-meter defender, is the most experienced player on the U.S. team. He was voted the best player at his position at Atlanta by World Water Polo magazine and is a prolific scorer. He plays professionally in Greece for Ethnikos Piraeus; his late arrival from Greece kept him out of the opener of the UPS International Cup, but he scored five goals in his first game and was voted the tournament's most valuable offensive player. He also missed the first game of the U.S. senior nationals but again scored five goals in his first game.

The 12 teams are the top three from the most recent World Cup, one each from four continental tournaments, four from an Olympic qualifying tournament, and host Australia. They have been divided into two groups of six each for round-robin play, and the top four from each group will advance to the quarterfinals.

* OTHERS TO WATCH--Italy, a gold medalist in 1992 and bronze medalist in 1996, remains a power. Yugoslavia, a gold medalist in 1984 and 1988, defeated the U.S. in the UPS International Cup in July and is always a fierce competitor. Croatia, a silver medalist in 1996, is extremely talented and physical. Hungary has won six Olympic gold medals. Although it last won gold in 1976 at Montreal and hasn't won a medal since it won bronze in 1980 at Moscow, Hungary is also deep and could be a medal threat. Hungary's Tamas Kasas, who scored three goals in the World Cup final and played at Atlanta in 1996, was voted the best player in the world this year by World Water Polo magazine.

* BEST STORY--Brazilian-born Tony Azevedo, a driver on the U.S. men's team, was a ballboy at the 1996 Olympics. His father, Ricardo, an assistant coach of the water polo team, told Tony he could be in the water at Sydney--and Ricardo was right. Though only 18, Azevedo was ranked the top young male water polo player in the world by World Water Polo magazine. Azevedo won four Southern Section titles at Long Beach Wilson and was the section MVP all four years. A dangerous scorer and free shooter.

* SOUTHLAND ATHLETES ON U.S. TEAM--Gavin Arroyo, 28, Villa Park High; Tony Azevedo, 18, Long Beach Wilson High; Ryan Bailey, 25, UC Irvine; Dan Hackett, 30, UCLA; Sean Kern, 22, UCLA; Kyle Kopp, 33, Long Beach State; Chi Kredell, 29, Long Beach Wilson High, Long Beach State; Robert Lynn, 33, Long Beach Wilson High, USC; Chris Oeding, 30, Corona del Mar High.

* KEY DATES--Sept. 23, U.S. vs. Croatia. Sept. 29, semifinals. Oct. 1, gold-medal game.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Fast Fact

* The sport, which began as an aquatic version of rugby, was dominated early by Great Britain, which did not lose a match in four Olympic tournaments held between 1900 and 1920.

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