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Water Polo Team Has Skill, Savvy

June 03, 2004|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

Someday, Guy Baker will get over the U.S. women's water polo team's last-second loss to Australia at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

"I think I've moved past denial to some form of acceptance," he said, trying to smile.

Winning at the Athens Games would go a long way toward soothing his pain. And the Olympic squad he announced Wednesday at the National Aquatic Center in Los Alamitos has more skill and savvy than the team he guided at the inaugural women's Olympic water polo tournament.

"We've had the experience of winning the world championships last year and the Pan Am Games and the experience of the Olympic qualifying tournament, and there haven't been a whole lot of changes," Baker said after introducing a roster that includes seven Sydney medalists and six first-time Olympians.

"This group will have to be at the level of the first group as far as being able to execute in the moment, with everything else that's going on. This team has more talent than the Sydney group, but the sport has grown and developed so that all the teams are better."

Growth in the program's budget allowed Baker to give up coaching UCLA's men's team in January 2001 to work full-time with the women's national team. That helped him get a good read on players and prepare them for every possibility, such as the rugged style favored by the Italian team and the precision of the Hungarians.

The top-ranked U.S. is grouped with third-ranked Russia, 2002 World Cup champion Hungary and Canada in Group B. Defending champion Australia, which will have only about three players from its 2000 team, is in Group A, with host Greece, second-ranked Italy and Kazakhstan. Each team plays the three others in its group to determine quarterfinal matchups.

"The great thing about our team is if it's physical, we can play that way. If they're calling it tight or it's really a technical-type game, we can play that way too," said Baker, who's negotiating a four-year contract extension with USA Water Polo. "We can play any style necessary. We're no sisters of the poor. We can mix it up as good as we get."

Defender Robin Beauregard of Huntington Beach said the U.S. faced a challenge in a tough group, "but we wouldn't have it any other way." She's confident because she has seen the team's strategy become more complex since 2000.

"The defenses we played were really kind of basic. Now, we're a lot more talented and have a lot more depth," said Beauregard, who sandwiched three NCAA titles at UCLA around her Sydney silver medal. "There's a lot more tactics involved.

"Full-time training really helps. Any time you practice at such a high level for a period of time, it's going to make you better."

One intriguing pick was center/defender Amber Stachowski, the second-youngest player on the team at 21. Her training has been limited since she suffered a concussion in a car accident last December and another head injury during a collision in practice, and she had a "slight relapse" a few weeks ago after a hard workout. Her versatility and athleticism weighed in her favor, and she's hopeful she'll soon shake the headaches and fatigue that have plagued her .

"Everybody else is at this level and I'm still down here," she said, holding one hand at shoulder level and the other at waist level. "Even if I think I'm at their level I can never reach that, because they have six months on me.

"But I don't really think it matters. I am a big gamer. I love to play games. That's when I bring everything."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

U.S. Women's Olympic Water Polo Roster

*--* Name Position College Robin Beauregard Defender UCLA '03 Margaret Dingeldein Attacker Stanford '02 Ellen Estes Center Stanford '02 Jacqueline Frank Goalkeeper Stanford '03 Natalie Golda Defender UCLA '05 Ericka Lorenz Attacker UC Berkeley '06 Heather Moody Center S.D. State '02 Thalia Munro Attacker UCLA '07 Nicolle Payne Goalkeeper UCLA '01 Heather Petri Attacker UC Berkeley '02 Kelly Rulon Attacker UCLA '07 Amber Stachowski C/D UCLA '07 Brenda Villa Attacker Stanford '03

*--*

Alternate: Gabrielle Domanic, Attacker, Santa Ana, UCLA '08; Coach: Guy Baker.

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