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Water Polo: Team USA plays Italy to draw

John Mann loves returning home.

"Home" could mean Newport Beach, or even the United States, for the Corona del Mar High water polo graduate who competed in the 2012 Summer Olympics.

"It's something I look forward to this time of year, because I'm always playing internationally," he said. "It's great to come back and see your family, and see your water polo family too. It's great to be back playing with my teammates. That's the thing that I'm really happy about right now."

Mann, now 29, is playing club water polo this year in France for C.N. Marseille. But on Sunday afternoon, he was back in Orange County as a team captain for the U.S. men's national team.

Team USA, which also included Newport Harbor High graduate Luca Cupido and Newport Beach native Anthony Daboub, played host to Italy in an exhibition game at Newport Harbor High. Mann certainly did his part, scoring three goals and drawing three exclusions.

But Italy's Stefano Luongo led everyone with five goals, and Italy rallied late to forge a 10-10 tie.

No overtime was played, since the game was an exhibition. The teams will see each other in two more exhibitions in the coming week, playing Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Pomona-Pitzer and Saturday at 2 p.m. at USC.

Mann, who graduated from Cal in 2007, is now one of Team USA's elder statesmen. He seems to be enjoying the role.

"I just am constantly excited to come to training," Mann said. "There's a lot of young guys, but we as a team are not looking at that as some excuse, like we're rebuilding or something like that. I think we have the talent to win now. That's the approach of Coach Dejan [Udovicic], and he's fantastic at developing players. He's helping me grow into a better player every day."

Cupido transferred to Newport Harbor from Italy in the summer of 2013, and went on to earn Newport-Mesa Dream Team Player of the Year honors that fall. He also saw ample playing time Sunday against his home country, earning two steals and drawing two steals.

"It's a weird situation," said Cupido, 19, who earned Newcomer of the Year honors in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation this fall with Cal. "I played with these guys all my life, and I haven't seen them for the last two years since I moved to the States. Now, the first time I see them is here in the game, facing them in the water. It's pretty funny, actually. A little bit of emotion, for sure.

"There was trash talking before the game. During warmups we were making fun of each other. I was expecting it."

Team USA never trailed against Italy, the 2012 Olympics silver medalist. The Americans seemed to have the game in hand, especially after Bret Bonanni scored his third goal with 1:57 left to create a 10-7 lead.

But Italy did not fold. A power-play goal from Nicholas Prescuitti trimmed the lead to two, then Luongo added a steal and score to cut it to 10-9 with 55 seconds left.

After Team USA's next possession ended in a long shot saved by Italy goalie Marco Del Lungo, Luongo scored his fifth goal from the left to tie the game with 11 seconds remaining.

Italy got the ball back with four seconds left. Luongo's shot was field blocked, and a last-second attempt by Alex Obert of Team USA went just wide left.

"For three quarters, we had a good game," Cupido said. "For some reason, we kind of stopped playing, and that's the reason why they came back."

Alex Bowen scored twice for Team USA, and Tony Azevedo and Jesse Smith added single goals. McQuin Baron made nine saves.

Mann stayed on the pool deck long after the final whistle, signing autographs for kids and speaking with supporters. He said the next big tournament for Team USA is the Pan American Games, to be held in Toronto in July. The winner of that tournament will qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil.

"It's always good to be home," said Mann, who along with his teammates conducted a water polo clinic on Sunday morning before the game. "Any time we play here, it's special for me. I've played so many games in this pool. It's not my home pool … but I'll never forget those cold mornings, the Battles of the Bay, and all of the awesome things that happened here. I believe it's the home of water polo in the United States."

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