Peter Varellas throws during a match against Montenegro. (Alexander Hassenstein…)
LONDON — After a silver-medal performance in the Beijing Olympics' water polo tournament, which U.S. goalkeeper Merrill Moses insists was really losing the gold medal, players vowed to stay together another four years and take that final, triumphant step as a group.
They put their lives and careers on hold, rejecting lucrative contracts in Europe so they could train at Cal Lutheran in Thousand Oaks and build the unity they'd need against opponents whose players stayed sharp in high-level professional leagues. That harmony, they said Sunday, was crucial to their 8-7 victory over a persistent Montenegro squad at the Water Polo Arena in their London Olympic opener.
"We trained together for seven months to be able to do what we just did," Moses said.
Peter Varellas scored three times and Moses made 11 saves for the U.S., which scored on two of six man advantages and remained composed each time Montenegro tried to mount a comeback.
An astute timeout called by Coach Terry Schroeder with 1 minute 23 seconds left and his team up by one goal was a key moment. After the break, U.S. captain Tony Azevedo scored from long range for an 8-6 lead, and that became the difference after Vladimir Gojkovic scored with 46 seconds left.
Montenegro had the ball in the final seconds but couldn't get a shot off.
"That was clutch," attacker Shea Buckner of Villa Park said of the timeout. "It gave us a chance not only to set up that play but to organize for the rest of the game and what's going to happen the rest of the game. That was a good use of a timeout to get our heads together and realize the situation and what was left in the game."
They all realized they had been pushed, and they welcomed it.
"It was a great test," Varellas said. "I was thinking back to 2008. In Beijing we opened with China, the host country, which was really exciting … but not one of the stronger teams. Here we opened with a stronger team, a good test to kind of see where we're at."
After a tight first quarter, the U.S. built a 4-2 lead by halftime. Montenegro cut that to 4-3, but the U.S. took a 6-3 lead on a lob by Adam Wright and a long shot by Varellas. Montenegro pulled to within one at 6-5 and again at 7-6 and 8-7, but the U.S. men held on.
"There's going to be a lot of games that are one goal," Schroeder said. "It's a great start for us to win the one-goal game. It builds that confidence and puts us in a great place in our bracket. We've got to celebrate for 15 minutes and get ready to play in two days."
The team next plays Romania on Tuesday.
In other games Sunday, Serbia beat Hungary, 14-10, and Romania beat Britain, 13-4, in the U.S. team's group. In the other group, Croatia beat Greece, 8-6; Spain beat Kazakhstan, 14-6; and Italy beat Australia, 8-5.