Los Angeles: For his first Olympics with USA Water Polo, men’s coach Dejan Udovicic is bringing along a group of 20-somethings long on athletic ability and short on experience. Oh so short on experience.
What comes next is anyone’s guess.
While Tony Azevedo and Merrill Moses highlight the 13-player roster for Rio de Janeiro announced on Thursday, there are only four holdovers from the United States’ disappointing eighth-place finish in London. The average age of the nine newcomers just makes the cut for happy hour at 21.1 years old.
“When the players stepping up, I heard so many times repeating, first Olympics, first Olympics,” said Udovicic, who coached Serbia to a bronze medal in 2012. “Maybe it’s scary, scary thought, scary thing, but I’m proud of what they did. I’m proud of these guys, I’m proud to stand in front of them.”
There are signs the youthful team is coming together nicely. The US, ranked sixth in the world, are coming off a second-place finish in the FINA World League Super Final last month in China. They posted shoot-out victories over Australia and Greece before losing 10-6 to Serbia in the final.
It was the first medal for the US in a major FINA competition since winning silver at the 2008 Olympics.
“I think it helped our confidence a lot. ... It was good for us to get that game experience,” said Bret Bonanni, an attacker from Huntington Beach, California.
Next up is an exhibition against Montenegro in Houston on July 30 before the US faces reigning Olympic champion Croatia in their Rio opener on August 6.
Azevedo is heading to his fifth Olympics, a record for USA Water Polo. The 34-year-old captain was born in Rio and plays professionally for Sesi in Sao Paulo.
“We’ve gotten better every month, it’s exciting to see,” he said. “I think we’re going to be a team that everyone’s afraid of. I know they’re already afraid of us and be ready. In Rio, we’re going to be one of the best teams in the world and I’m really excited and proud to play with these guys.”
Azevedo made his Olympic debut in 2000 in Sydney. Thomas Dunstan and Ben Hallock, two of Azevedo’s teammates for Brazil, turned 3 that year.
It’s the fourth Olympics for Jesse Smith and No. 3 for Moses, who turns 39 on August 13 and is the probable starter in goal. John Mann is going back to the Olympics for the second time.