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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | WATER POLO

Confidence Soars for U.S.

September 28, 2000|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — Nothing short of a double-digit loss to Greece on Wednesday could have prevented the U.S. water polo team from advancing to the tournament quarterfinals. It didn't have to win resoundingly, but the players and Coach John Vargas wanted to win convincingly enough to lift their confidence and raise their game another notch before crossover play begins.

"It meant a lot to us," Vargas said after his team rolled to a 9-3 victory at the Ryde Aquatic Center. "We're getting better and better every day and we needed this for ourselves, not just to get by, but to get a win and cross over with some confidence."

With goalkeeper Dan Hackett playing aggressively and shutting out Greece for three quarters, the U.S. rolled into the playoffs. Driver Tony Azevedo of Long Beach scored three goals and drivers Wolf Wigo and Chris Oeding each scored twice as the U.S. finished round-robin play 2-3 and fourth in the exceedingly tough Group B. It will face Russia, the Group A winner, Friday afternoon in the quarterfinals.

"We didn't start off on all cylinders, and we've improved each day," Oeding said, referring to losses to Yugoslavia and Croatia in the team's first two games. "Our goal is to build on that success and concentrate on going from game to game. . . . [Russia] is going to be a tough game. I think we have matched up well against Russia and I think it's going to take a game where we're improving from where we are."

Hackett, of Newport Beach, stopped 10 shots as the U.S. built a 7-0 lead after three quarters. Greece (0-5) was all but eliminated from playoff contention but still played a physical game that left scratches on the backs of several U.S. players.

"This gives us an extra boost," Vargas said. "They didn't score for three quarters, and internationally, that's almost unheard of."

Hackett was given a rest and was replaced by backup Sean Nolan, who stopped two of five shots in his first playing time in the Games. Hackett said he would have liked to have finished what he started but was glad Nolan got the experience.

"I have had a shutout, but nothing on this scale," Hackett said. "I didn't think about it until I came out of the game. When I'm playing well, I'm just reacting. . . . In the third quarter, I looked up and it was 7-0."

The U.S. scored twice in the first quarter, on an extra-man goal by Wigo and a shot inside the far post by Oeding, and three times in the second quarter, on goals by Sean Kern, Chris Humbert and Azevedo.

Scoring in the second half were Azevedo (twice), Oeding and Wolf, as the U.S. was four for eight with the extra man. Azevedo, Wolf and Humbert share the team lead with nine goals each, and Oeding has five.

"I think our team has gotten better each game, and this game showed we are a strong team and a medal-contending team," said Azevedo, 18, who acknowledged feeling some butterflies and playing more timidly than usual in the U.S. team's 10-7 loss to Croatia.

"Maybe another team would have gone out there [against Greece] not fired up. We were fired up."

The other quarterfinal matchups Friday are Group A third-place finisher Spain vs. Group B runner-up Croatia, Group A runner-up Italy vs. Group B third-place finisher Hungary, and Group A fourth-place finisher Australia vs. Group B winner Yugoslavia.

Vargas planned to put his team through two workouts and a film session today to prepare for Friday's game. Russia finished group play with a 4-0-1 record and an impressive plus-23 goal differential, which was padded by its 21-5 rout of Slovakia on Wednesday.

"I really believe we have the toughest bracket, and the top four teams in this bracket could be the top four teams in the tournament," Vargas said.

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