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SYDNEY 2000 SUMMER OLYMPICS | WATER POLO

O'Toole at Center of U.S. Women's Surge

September 23, 2000|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — Maureen O'Toole has waited 23 years for this.

That's a lot of wishing and hoping for women's water polo to become an Olympic sport, a lot of early morning practices and late-night soreness, countless fund-raisers to pay for trips to tournaments when money was scarce and recognition scarcer still.

It was appropriate, then, that O'Toole--widely judged the best female player the sport has known--scored the first two U.S. goals and made the last, vital defensive play in the 6-5 victory Friday over the Netherlands that launched the U.S. into the gold medal game today against Australia.

It couldn't have happened any other way. It shouldn't have happened any other way.

"It's indescribable," said O'Toole, who scored twice in the first 55 seconds at Ryde Aquatic Center and ensured the U.S. would win the see-saw game when she stole the ball from Netherlands center forward Karen Kuipers in the last few seconds.

"It's exciting. It's fun. It's everything we've worked for over the past two years."

O'Toole, 39, played in the first women's World Cup tournament in 1978 and the first women's world championship tournament, in 1979. She will conclude her brilliant career today in the first women's water polo Olympic gold medal game before an expected crowd of 17,000 at the Sydney International Aquatic Center, the largest crowd ever to watch a women's water polo game.

It's a long way from the days O'Toole and her teammates played in obscurity before friends, family and a few fanatics. But it isn't the end of their journey. That will come only when they ascend the medal stand after playing a team that is their twin in depth, resilience, talent and conditioning, a team that edged them, 7-6, in round-robin play Tuesday. Like the U.S., Australia (5-1-0) rode a second-half rally to the finals Friday in a 7-6 victory over Russia.

"This was just one step," O'Toole said of Friday's victory. "We've got one more day."

The U.S. (4-1-1) got to play one more day thanks to an exceptional defensive effort that held the Netherlands (3-3) scoreless for the final 15:47 and superb goalkeeping by Bernice Orwig. After seeing teammate Heather Moody score the go-ahead goal for the U.S. 51 seconds into the fourth quarter and minutes later get kicked in the face and suffer a possible broken nose, Orwig dedicated her effort to Moody, who left the game stunned and bleeding. Moody was taken to the athletes' village for X-rays, but probably will play today.

"I was completely focused," said Orwig, who used the inside of her right arm to deflect a potential tying goal by Carla Quint with 57 seconds to play. "I was upset Heather got injured. I was going to keep my goal clean."

Each team enjoyed several scoring surges, but the U.S. trailed, 5-3, in the second quarter and by 5-4 at halftime. However, as the locals say, no worries.

"They got some good picks. Our defense broke down a little bit and we didn't stop their six-on-fives," U.S. driver Coralie Simmons said. "We wanted to come at them right away and get them flustered, but they came back and had a good second quarter. We picked up our defense."

The U.S. offense also rose to the challenge.

Robin Beauregard of Huntington Beach tied the score, 5-5, with 3:58 to play in the third quarter with an extra-man goal, throwing a hard shot between the left arm of goalkeeper Karla Plugge and the right post. As orange-clad Dutch fans alternated chants with star-spangled U.S. fans in the stands, the U.S. took the lead for good on Moody's goal. Julie Swail created the opportunity by sending a high lob toward the net; O'Toole was tied up by Ingrid Leijendekker and couldn't reach the ball, but Moody dashed in from behind to throw it in.

It took the combined efforts of Swail and O'Toole to make sure that lead held up. The Dutch took time out with 22.5 seconds to play, and Swail knew they would work the ball to Kuipers, perhaps the best player in Europe. "At all costs, we didn't want her to shoot the ball," Swail said. "If it meant taking an exclusion [foul], I'd have done that."

While Swail and Kuipers jostled, O'Toole swooped in to steal the ball and run the clock out. That put the U.S.--which barely won an Olympic berth in a qualifying tournament last April in Sicily--tantalizingly within reach of the gold. The Netherlands, the 1999 world champion, will face Russia for the bronze medal before the tournament finale.

"Before games, I always say, 'It's just a game,' " O'Toole said. "But obviously, the stakes are higher. This is the highest we've ever gotten. This is huge. It's awesome."

To take that next step, though, the U.S. must overcome an understandably partisan crowd and a team that's balanced, big and solid defensively. "They're definitely the favorite," Coach Guy Baker said. "They beat us more times than we beat them. . . . We faced as much pressure in Sicily as we're facing here, and we came through. This whole process, this journey, has been fantastic. I couldn't ask for a better script."

*

* LATE RESULT

The United States vs. Australia final started at 3:15 this morning. Results can be found at http://www.latimes.com/olympics and in Sunday's edition of The Times.

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