Bob Ryan

Not a watered-down rivalry

US women advance with win over Australia

By Bob Ryan
Boston Globe / August 19, 2008
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BEIJING—Very simply put: They have a history.

The United States and Australia are arch-enemies in women’s water polo. The Aussies beat the Americans at the bell in Sydney for the gold. The USA squad edged Australia in Athens for the bronze. This semifinal match was the 13th time the two have met this year.

‘‘It’s a good rivalry,’’ says American coach Guy Baker. ‘‘We know them very well. It’s right up there with the great rivalries like the Red Sox and Yankees. And it has good qualities. It’s never gotten ugly or bitter. You know both teams are going to play very hard and you know it’s going to be a one-goal game.’’

But somebody’s gotta win and somebody’s gotta lose and this time the smiling faces belonged to the Yanks, who advanced to Thursday’s gold medal game against The Netherlands with a 9-8 Tuesday afternoon triumph on a goal by Captain Brenda Villa with exactly a minute to play.

The winning goal came in a 6-on-5 situation, with an Aussie off on an ‘‘exclusion,’’ the water polo version of a penalty. The goal saved the USA ladies from embarrassment and perhaps a session with the resident sports shrink on hand, because they had entered the fourth period in front by an 8-5 score and they do have a history of coughing up leads.

That Villa scored the winning goal came as no surprise to anyone, for she is the best player and unquestioned leader of a team that features 10 ‘‘newbies,’’ or first time Olympians. Only Heather Petri and Natalie Golda shared the Athens experience with the 28-year-old Californian (that being something of a redundancy on this team, since 11 of its 13 members hail from the Golden State), and none of them were there with her for the sad conclusion.

Brenda Villa is 5-4 and not particularly svelte in a sport where the athletes keep getting bigger and stronger. But she’s America’s best; no doubt about that.

‘‘Brenda is a fantastic player,’’ maintains Australian coach Greg McFadden. ‘‘She doesn’t look like a water polo player, but she is so smart and she is one of the best players in the world. She’ll give it a go; I’ll tell you that.’’

Coach Baker yields to no one in his admiration for his team captain, but he wishes to make it clear that she didn’t do it all by herself.

‘‘I feel good with the ball in Brenda’s hands,’’ he says. ‘‘But on this play she was the most open player. It was a collective goal. All six players were involved in it. They all did a great job in what they were supposed to do. That’s why she was open.’’

Fine. She was open. But let the record show that when the big opportunity came she drilled it, low and hard, beating Australian goalkeeper Alicia McCormack to her right side.

There is no telling what manner of weeping and wailing there would have been on the American side had they not won this game. A three-goal lead entering the final eight minutes may not be insurmountable, but it’s pretty darn good, and if you aspire to be a gold medalist you’ve got to win a game like this.

It was a harrowing final period for the Americans, who had played very well to get that lead, scoring four times in the third period. Gemma Beadsworth started Australia back on the comeback trail with a goal 50 seconds in to the final period. Less than a minute later there was a near-fatal juxtaposition for the Americans, when McCormack stopped Golda on a penalty shot and the Aussies swam right down the pool on what could only be described as a fast break and got a goal from Kate Gynther, who happens to be a step-sister to the Rippons, (Mekissa and Rebecca), one of three sets of sisters on the Australian team (Got all that?).

The Australiana had all the momentum now, and it seemed inevitable they would tie the game because the Americans were making bad mistakes, including, at one point, back-to-back turnovers, which is unforgivable in a sport where you ought to get a shot off each time you have the ball. Sure enough, Gynther tied it up with 2:27 to go.

Baker was about to find out what his team was made of.

Getting a key exclusion helped, of course, but that’s just part of the game. ‘‘Our games with the Americans are always close,’’ sighs McFadden. ‘‘Unfortunately, on that extra man in the end we didn’t defend. If we had, there’s a good chance we would have gone on to win the game.’’

Having someone like Villa on hand was a very soothing thought to this young team. ‘‘She gives us a calmness, but still with that desire to win,’’ explains Alison Gregorka, who was somehow allowed to play on this team even though she comes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.

So when Villa scored, it was like, yeah well? What else did you expect?

‘‘It was very, very fitting,’’ maintains Golda. ‘‘She’s the captain. She’s the team leader. And she’s clutch.’’

The thing in the water has always been no problem for Villa. But this business of being the leader is something else entirely. ‘‘It’s not her natural instinct,’’ Baker says, and Villa won’t disagree.

‘‘That transition was not easy for me,’’ she admits. ‘‘When I joined this team eight years ago, I was just a young girl and I had people like Maureen O’Toole to show me the way. I’m not by nature the nurturing type. In the water, fine. But outside, not so much. ‘‘

This was a satisfying win against their biggest rival, but it was just the semis, remember. Said Gregorka, ‘‘Somebody was saying as we walked away from the pool, ‘We’ve already got a medal. Now we have to make sure to get the right color.’’’

You can be reasonably sure that Brenda Villa will have something to say about the outcome. ‘‘There are a lot of great memories I have from her,’’ says Guy Baker. ‘‘But there’s one more to make.’’

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