U.S. women's water polo
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U.S. women’s water polo extends dominance with World League title, Olympic berth

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Consider the U.S. women’s water polo team is 127-4 going back to 2015. Then it’s no surprise it became the first nation to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.

The Americans won a sixth straight FINA World League Super Final title, beating Italy 10-9 on Sunday to grab the first available Olympic berth.

The U.S. hasn’t dropped a game at an Olympics, World Championship, World Cup or a World League Super Final since the 2015 World Championship, which they went on to win anyway.

Next summer, the U.S. women will try to join the Hungarian men and the British men as the only teams to win three straight Olympic water polo titles.

Two of the three youngest players on the Rio Olympic team starred in particular in at the World League Super Final in Budapest.

Maddie Musselman, 20, was the Super Final MVP. Makenzie Fischer, also 20, was player of the match against Italy.

The roster included nine of the 13 Rio Olympians, headlined by Maggie Steffens, MVP of the last two Olympics, and guided by Adam Krikorian, who has been at the helm for a decade.

The U.S. heads to the world championship next month in Gwangju, South Korea, with a chance to become the first male or female team to win three straight titles.

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With another gold, Krikorian keeps U.S. water polo team on top

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On Adam Krikorian’s first trip as coach of the U.S. women’s water polo team, he lost his players at the airport. Brenda Villa, Heather Petri and company disappeared right after they checked in.

Krikorian was looking around when he figured out what happened. His players had retreated to the lounges reserved for more experienced travelers.

“A couple of them came out and it was like, I felt like a rookie,” Krikorian said. “I felt like I was at spring training as a baseball player as a rookie trying to just learn the little subtleties of being part of the team. So those little things are I think the things that I remember most.”

Krikorian learned his way around pretty quickly. A few weeks later, he coached the U.S. to the 2009 world title.

In some ways, the world is still trying to catch up.

Four days after his 10th anniversary as national team coach, Krikorian guided the U.S. to gold at the FINA Intercontinental Tournament for the second straight year. Playing without Maggie Steffens after the captain got hurt in the semifinals, the U.S. got two goals apiece from Stefania Haralabidis, Kiley Neushul and Kaleigh Gilchrist in a dramatic 14-12 shootout victory over rival Australia in Perth on Sunday.

Steffens, the MVP of the past two Olympics, was held out after Krikorian said she was “on the wrong end of a cheap shot” in Saturday’s 14-7 victory over Canada – something he said has been happening more and more as the U.S. piles up international titles.

“I think people look at it as an opportunity to try to intimidate or do anything they can to kind of get us off our game and obviously that hasn’t happened,” he said Monday in a phone interview.

“I mean we’re looking at probably somewhere upward of 10, 11, 12 just direct shots out of the water to our kids.”

Krikorian, 44, played at UCLA and coached the men’s and women’s teams for the Bruins before taking over the U.S. women’s program.

With Krikorian on the pool deck, the U.S. has enjoyed an unprecedented run on top of the sport. It became the first country to win two straight Olympics titles when it rolled over the field in Rio in 2016.

It currently holds every major women’s water polo championship and will be a heavy favorite to win a third straight world title in South Korea in July.

Krikorian has come a long way since that first trip.

“I think I’m calmer, No. 1, and I think that’s largely because of the perspective I have,” he said. “I don’t think my competitiveness has died down, but I realize this is not the end all to life.

“I think maybe when I first began it was, you get so caught up in winning and losing and I’ve become much more process-oriented and I have a better perspective on things.”

Tokyo will be Krikorian’s third Olympics. He said he hasn’t thought about his future beyond that point.

While he wants to make sure he is continually challenged, Krikorian also is appreciative of his current position.

“There is just nothing like being part of a team in sports,” he said. “There’s just nothing like it. There’s the passion, the energy, the camaraderie, the connection and the relationships that you build. I have a hard time imagining that there’s any profession in the world that is going to be as satisfying as what I do.”

 

U.S. women’s water polo team wins fifth world title

AP
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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — They’ve done it again.

The U.S. women claimed a record-extending fifth world championship in water polo with a 13-6 victory over Spain on Friday.

Kiley Neushul scored four goals to help the two-time Olympic champions win back-to-back titles at the worlds. The pre-tournament favorites had beaten Russia 14-9 in the semifinal. The Russians finished with the bronze medal.

Spain fought to stay even at 3-3 before quick-fire goals from Neushul and Maddie Musselman gave the U.S. breathing room at halftime.

Captain Maggie Steffens added a couple of goals in what turned out to be a comfortable win on the back of strong defense.

U.S. goalkeeper Gabrielle Stone saved seven of 12 shots. Amanda Longan yielded Spain’s other goal.

Musselman had a hat trick, giving her 16 goals for the tournament. Anna Espar Llaquet reached a hat trick for Spain with the game’s final score.

The U.S. had been the first women’s water polo nation to win four worlds, after victories in 2003, 2007, 2009 and 2015.

Both sides were backed by an enthusiastic crowd on Budapest’s Margaret Island in the middle of the Danube. Most of the crowd seemed to be from Hungary, whose men’s team plays in the final against Croatia on Saturday night.

The American women returned seven of their 13 gold medalists from Rio. The most notable absentee was No. 1 goalie Ashleigh Johnson, who stepped aside from the national team this year but did wrap up her NCAA career at Princeton.

The U.S. men were eliminated in group play in 13th place overall, their worst-ever finish.

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Correction: An earlier headline erroneously stated the U.S. won a fifth straight world title.