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BEIJING 2008

Longshots no longer

The American men, who have never won a world title, play Hungary for gold.

August 23, 2008|Melissa Isaacson | Chicago Tribune

BEIJING -- It has the potential to rank just behind what Michael Phelps accomplished in a swimming pool here.

But for a team that had just pulled off one of the biggest victories in its history, unquestionably arriving at the highest point in the last 20 years in the sport, U.S. water polo players were rather subdued Friday night.

"We were meant to be here," said Rick Merlo, reflecting the quiet confidence of his teammates. "This tournament was meant for us. We're all very excited, but we all expected to be in the gold medal game. Our whole motto the last four years was to get back to the podium. This has been our focus. And we're not done yet. We have one more step to go."

In U.S. water polo, the Americans' 10-5 victory over Serbia on Friday night at the Yingdong Natatorium set up a gold-medal opportunity that, if accomplished against two-time defending Olympic champion Hungary, would rank high on the short list of the biggest U.S. team achievements in these Games.

The Americans got outstanding performances Friday defensively (goalkeeper Merrill Moses of Rancho Palos Verdes had 16 saves; Serbia had one) and offensively (scoring on 10 of 21 opportunities to Serbia's five of 33).

"A lot of it is just belief in yourself," said U.S. player Ryan Bailey of Long Beach, who scored twice. "These guys have won tons of medals in the Olympics, at world championships -- and we haven't. For us to be able to believe in ourselves that we can overcome these guys and beat these experienced, great players, it means a lot. I don't want to say it was lacking before, but we definitely have it now."

Tony Azevedo, a three-time Olympian from Long Beach who scored five goals in the U.S.'s opener against China but was held scoreless in two of the last three games, had a goal in the first, third and fourth periods.

"This morning, we decided it was going to be our day, that there was nothing they could do to stop us," Bailey said. "We were going to be confident in our shots and just let it go, use all our energy, everything we had and just put it into the game. We were not going to worry about the score and just keep going and just play. And it's a lot of fun when you do that."

It is the U.S. team's first appearance in the gold medal game since U.S. Coach Terry Schroeder represented the U.S. at the Seoul Games in 1988.

The ninth-ranked U.S. team will at least equal its best Olympic performance -- silvers in '84 and '88. The U.S. has never won a world championship.

"For U.S. water polo, this is a huge deal," Bailey said.

It is an especially huge deal considering that the program had hit the lowest of lows just a year ago, when Schroeder was named its third coach in three years.

"It was as close to a dysfunctional family as you can find," Schroeder said this week. "They felt like they were outcasts in a way. They felt almost like USA Water Polo turned its back on them."

Now they find themselves in the final against the best of the best. "Can we go against the two-time gold medalists? Yeah, we have a shot," said Layne Beaubien, who scored two goals against Serbia. "We have a chance to be the best water polo team in U.S. history and for sure, we feel confident and we're going to go for it."

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