Water Polo Gets a Boost

Times Staff Writer

In less than six months' work with the U.S. men's water polo team, Ricardo Azevedo has revived the morale that flagged under former coach Ratko Rudic.

Now, Azevedo wants to restore prestige to a program that hasn't won a world or Olympic medal since the 1988 Seoul Games.

Azevedo, who led winning teams at Long Beach State and Long Beach Wilson High, will measure his team's progress during the FINA World League tournament.

The U.S. men will play a preliminary round next week in Victoria, Canada, before returning to their Los Alamitos base for semifinal games July 19-23.

The U.S. women, ranked second in the world, sent a B team to the World League preliminaries and will play their semifinal games at Los Alamitos starting Wednesday, through July 16.

The top teams will advance to the World League Super Final. The women's title will be determined July 26-30 at Cosenza, Italy. The men's Super Final will be played in Athens, Aug. 2-6.

Azevedo said finishing in the top four in the World League would be "an uphill battle, but that's what challenges are all about."

He added, "What we tried to do this year is a lot of teaching, bringing a lot of pride back -- let's say the will to win. Sometimes, if you're not successful, people feel like, 'Do I have this or not?' I think that's the way the players felt last year."

Goalkeeper Merrill Moses, of Rancho Palos Verdes, said players were more comfortable with Azevedo than with the hard-driving Rudic.

"We've always said we're American and we're ready to go and shock the world as best we can," said Moses, who started in the first of two victories over Australia last month at Sydney. "I don't think people will be shocked after this year."

For the U.S. women, whose history boasts a silver medal at the Sydney Olympics, a world title in 2003 and a bronze medal at the Athens Olympics, the World League will prepare newcomers for next month's World Cup tournament in China.

Coach Guy Baker said that the team has focused on defense since its double-overtime loss to Hungary at last year's world championships, and that it's faster and better at the center position.

"I'm a little bit nervous," he said, "but at the same time I look at it as this is a team that's got key players back from world championships, so we should be in a fairly decent position."

Brenda Villa of Commerce, who has played in Sicily the last two years, sees the World League as a step in building toward the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

"We're very talented in very many different positions," said Villa, an attacker.

"We have a lot of new players that can do more than one position, so that helps us with variety and depth."

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