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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | WATER POLO

U.S. Plan Working in Debut

September 22, 2000|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — Coach Guy Baker's strategy for the U.S. women's water polo team called for solid team play, balanced scoring, discipline and good conditioning.

That blueprint has gotten the U.S. into the semifinals of the first women's Olympic water polo tournament. The next historic stroke occurred today, when the U.S. (3-1-1) faced the offensively gifted Netherlands (3-2-0) at the Ryde Aquatic Centre.

The winner advanced to the gold-medal game Saturday night against Australia, which rallied from two goals down to defeat Russia, 7-6, in the first semifinal. Australia finished first in preliminary-round competition with a 4-1 record.

The U.S. defeated the Netherlands, 6-4, in the teams' Olympic opener and went on to finish second in the six-team preliminary group, a point ahead of the Dutch. The U.S. scored a tournament-high 36 goals on 82 shots, a 43.9% efficiency rate, and gave up 30. Only Australia had a better goal differential, after scoring 35 goals and giving up 20.

The Netherlands has scored 27 goals on 102 shots, 26.5% efficiency. The U.S. is tops in extra-man goals, with 20 in 36 shots (55.6%); the Netherlands has 12 on 25 shots (48%).

The U.S. has scoring depth, but the Netherlands, whose teams have been ranked in the world's top three since women's international competition began in 1979, may have a more dangerous individual scorer in Danielle de Bruijn. The Dutch driver is tied with Australia's Bridgette Gusterson for the tournament scoring lead with nine goals. U.S. driver Coralie Simmons and Dutch center forward Karin Kuipers are among a group of players tied for fourth with seven goals each.

Nine U.S. players have one goal or more, compared with seven for the Netherlands. Dutch driver Ingrid Leijendekker is considered one of the world's top players and was voted the most valuable player in her country's victorious World Cup appearance in 1999, but she has yet to score.

Both teams have benefited from impressive goalkeeping. Nicolle Payne and Bernice Orwig have alternated in goal for the U.S., and together have stopped 60% of opponents' shots. Orwig, of Anaheim, has saved 26 of 37 shots (70.3%), and Payne, of Cerritos, has stopped 19 of 38 (50%). Karla Plugge has played every game for the Netherlands and has stopped 36 of 62 shots ((58.1%).

Both teams thrive in physical games, but neither is considered dirty. They both have good size and are tenacious defenders.

For a team that struggled to qualify for the Games, the U.S. has come a long way. But for veteran Maureen O'Toole, at least, it's not far enough.

"I've been out there 23 years doing this. Every moment of this is great," said the 39-year-old veteran, who came out of retirement when women's water polo was added to the Olympic program three years ago. "We've accomplished our first goal, but we still have things left to do."

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LATE RESULT

United States vs. Netherlands semifinal started at 1:15 this morning. Results can be found at http://www.latimes.com/olympics and in Saturday's edition of The Times.

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