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Intercontinental Tournament Offers Rare Together Time For U.S. Water Polo Team On Road To Rio

By Maryann Hudson | March 30, 2015, 1:39 p.m. (ET)

Captain Tony Azevedo looks to pass the ball under pressure from Maro Jokovic of Croatia during the men's water polo match between USA and Croatia during the 15th FINA World Championships on July 22, 2013 in Barcelona, Spain.

With most of the U.S. men’s water polo team scattered in colleges across the nation, and a few plodding through their final years of high school, getting the national team together for training in the same pool is challenging for coach Dejan Udovicic.

Spring break couldn’t have come at a better time.

Summoning his players to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Udovicic has spent the past week and then some preparing his team to play host to an eight-nation tournament that begins Monday at Corona del Mar High School in Newport Beach, California.

The week-long FINA Intercontinental Tournament, which concludes April 4, includes teams from countries that are outside of Europe — Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Japan and Kazakhstan. It serves as a qualifier for the FINA World League Super Final this June in Bergamo, Italy. The United States won this tournament last year.

“We are trying to find every way for the national team to be together, and this is the only way to do it right now,” Udovicic said. “We respect education and I’m aware that education is first and the kids and players need to go to school. We have satellite practices in the north and south, and we are using all weekends to be together. There is no rest for them. But we are going in a good direction and we do hard work and have a good approach.

“We are right now the most potential team in the world.”

John Mann in action during the men's water polo match between USA and South Africa during the 15th FINA World Championships on July 24, 2013 in Barcelona, Spain.

This national team is also the youngest — age wise — in the world. At the London 2012 Olympic Games, it was the oldest. Since then, nearly the entire roster has changed, leaving only a few veterans with Olympic experience: Tony Azevedo, John Mann and Jesse Smith. A couple other players have been on the team for a few years but didn’t get their shot at playing until after 2012, when many veterans retired. Team USA finished eighth in London.

“Some players had played four or five Olympics and couldn’t play anymore after London,” said Udovicic, who was named the men’s national team coach in May 2013. “Now we have 80 percent college guys and a few other players who are there to help the those young players to grow up as soon as possible.”

The youngest player on the team is Ben Hallock, a 17-year old high-school senior from Studio City, California. While Hallock says that other duties besides playing can befall the youngest player, he considers it an extreme honor to be one of the youngest team members.

“It is an amazing opportunity to be able to be training with the best players in the country and learning from them everyday,” Hallock said in an email interview with TeamUSA.org. “While the youngest one is usually carrying all the caps and equipment, it is well worth it while I soak up as much knowledge as I can from some of the older guys.”

In the tournament’s scheduled play, the United States opens against Canada Monday night and faces Japan the next night. Four-time Olympian Azevedo, in Brazil playing professionally, returned home to train and play in the tournament.

“They (Canada and Japan) have been training full-time together and will be prepared well for this tournament,” Azevedo said via email. “This year our goal is qualifying for the Olympic Games. I feel like our team can match up with anyone in the world and now is focused on getting prepared for this summer, where we will have three chances to qualify for Rio 2016.”

There are three ways this year Team USA — ranked sixth in the world — can qualify for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games, the first of which begins with this week’s tournament. The top four teams advance to the Super Finals, from which the winner qualifies for the Games.

“We won this (intercontinental) tournament last year, and we will try to repeat our success and use it and the next Super Final to prepare for the Pan American Games,” Udovicic said. “By doing good and hard work in the next few months and a year before the Olympic Games in Rio, we will be tough against everyone in the world.”

If the U.S. team falls short in California, its second chance to earn an Olympic bid will come at the Pan American Games, which will be held this July in Toronto. The third comes at the 2015 world championships, held the end of July in Kazan, Russia, from which the top two teams qualify for the Games.

And next year, there will be one more chance for the final Olympic bids. But the U.S. team doesn’t want to wait that long.

“We are making progress as a team, and I think that the closer we get to the 2016 Olympic Games our results will go higher and higher,” said Mann, who plays professionally in France and also returned to train and play in the tournament. “A big group of our players have been together since the world championships in 2013, and we have a lot of talent and opportunity.”

Maryann Hudson is a freelance writer from the Houston area. She was previously an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times. She has written for TeamUSA.org and USParalympics.org since 2012 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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