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A Semifinal Rematch Awaits U.S. Women's Water Polo Team


SYDNEY, Australia — The U.S. women's water polo team started with an upset of the Netherlands and now it will get a chance to show that the result really wasn't an upset at all.

With a workmanlike performance Wednesday night, the Americans handed winless Kazakhstan its fifth defeat, 9-6, rolling out of the round-robin portion of the Olympic tournament and into the semifinals, and a return engagement Friday night with the Dutch.

And the Hollanders, it would appear, might be ripe for the taking again. They lost to Russia, 6-3, only an hour before the U.S. beat the Kazaks at the Ryde Aquatic Center.

Not that Coach Guy Baker is counting any unhatched poultry.

"Holland has great offensive weapons," he said. "They've got speed, size and experience. They're probably the most experienced team here."

Most experienced team, maybe. But when it comes to individual experience, nobody else here can touch Maureen O'Toole, a 39-year-old pioneer who came out of retirement specifically to play in the first Olympics allowing women's water polo.

Brenda Villa of Commerce was the star of this particular show, scoring four goals, getting an assist and three steals, but it was O'Toole who got things nicely underway.

In the starting lineup for the first time here, she scored a power-play goal on a point-blank shot less than a minute into the game, then later blocked a shot, made a steal and contributed to one of Villa's goals with a nice pass in front of the goal.

She downplayed the importance of her quick-start goal--"Brenda made a great pass and that made it easy," she said--but not the U.S. team's achievement, which means her Olympic experience can continue for one more game, maybe two.

"I've waited 23 years for this," she said. "I cherish every moment I have here."

Asked if playing in the semifinals would heighten the intensity, she said, "It's not going to get any more intense. We've come from Day 1 with intensity. We've reached our first goal [advancing beyond the round robin], now we're going to try to reach our second [winning a medal]."

She also had an answer to critics--some of them in the local papers--who have recently discovered water polo and labeled it a brutal sport.

"It's not brutal," she said. "It's just a physical game. The pushing and shoving are part of it. We all understand that. When you've seen it awhile, you understand it."

For a team given little chance in this tournament, the Americans have done more than OK, and in their victory over Kazakhstan they seemed to have shored up an area that had been a problem.

In their 7-6 loss to host Australia on Tuesday, the Americans had cashed only three of 10 power-play opportunities. Wednesday night, they were five for seven with the player advantage. And if there were some defensive lapses, there also were some moments of near brilliance--spectacular blocks and equally impressive saves.

"I'm just glad it's over," Baker said of the preliminary play. "Our first objective was to get to the medal round. I think it's pretty exciting--we got there."

Advancing with the U.S. and the Netherlands were Australia and Russia, who will meet in Friday's first semifinal. The winners will play for the gold medal Saturday.

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