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U.S. Gets Left High and Dry by Serbia

The rebuilding effort continues as the men's water polo team suffers an emphatic end to its medal hopes with a 9-4 loss in pool-play finale.

August 24, 2004|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Miracles are getting some kind of workout here in Athens.

At the Olympics, the hockey movie "Miracle" has become this generation's "Rocky." But what worked for swim star Michael Phelps -- who estimated he has watched "Miracle" about 10 times -- did not carry over for a certain group of men in the pool.

A miracle was not forthcoming for the U.S. men's water polo team Monday at the Olympic Aquatic Center against Serbia and Montenegro. Faced with an in-or-out game in the final round of pool play, the Americans found themselves on the outside.

There will be no shot at a medal for Team USA in 2004. Serbia and Montenegro scored in the opening minute, took a two-goal lead within three minutes and never trailed, defeating the U.S., 9-4. Alexander Sapic had a hat trick, firing 10 shots, and six others scored for Serbia and Montenegro.

Serbia and Montenegro (4-1) moved on to the quarterfinals, and will try to improve on its third-place finish of 2000. The U.S. can only hope for a seventh-place finish, at best, in Athens.

The American goals came from captain Wolf Wigo, Omar Amr, Jeff Powers and Jesse Smith.

What put the U.S. in such a difficult spot was a 9-7 loss to Russia on Saturday, turning the game against Serbia and Montenegro into an elimination contest for a spot in the quarterfinals. They were unable to survive the so-called pool of death, the ultra-competitive Group A.

In 2000, the U.S. lost to Italy in the fifth-place game, but the players did not view 2004 as a setback. Quite simply, Phase 1 of the Ratko Rudic rebuilding program has ended.

"There's been a huge improvement in four years, and a lot of that is due to Ratko," Brett Ormsby said. "I don't know if it's necessarily a disappointment we didn't do as well as the Sydney team. I think we had different expectations coming in.

"It was a very tough bracket. I think we all found out about it in a team meeting. Everyone just laughed. We've always had Hungary, Serbia and Croatia in our bracket. We saw it as a challenge."

Said Rudic, hired in 2001 to revive the program: "We didn't get the result that we wanted. We made some mistakes, sure. But after a few times of not getting some of the calls we thought we should have, things started to get worse and worse."

The good news appears to be that the hard-driving Rudic, who received a yellow card for voicing his displeasure with the officiating, may offer a different look the next four years. Known for his intense ways and grueling practices, he hinted he might not have to be as draconian.

"They love to tell the stories," he said about his players.

In the future, the Americans will need to adjust when the play turns physical.

"Physically, these kind of games we are weaker. We are not used to playing more physical game," Rudic said.

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