NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Over the past week, the U.S. women’s water polo team has played Hungary in four exhibitions up and down the state of California, the Americans winning all four, the last a 9-4 victory Sunday that was way more physical than the final score would indicate before a happy, flag-waving crowd of about 1,000 people at Corona del Mar High School.
Afterward, the American players signed autographs and posed for photos — there were dozens and dozens of little girls in the crowd — and, under a postcard-perfect Southern California sky, the NBC cameras beamed it all out on live TV.
It was, as Olympic send-offs go, about as good as it gets.
Three weeks from Monday, the U.S. team opens round-robin play at the 2012 Games against — Hungary.
Since 2000, the Americans have done it all in water polo, won everything there is to win, except for Olympic gold.
This game Sunday was, in a sense, the beginning of the end of the journey. It was also, in a way, the start of the quest.
These four games against Hungary mean everything and nothing.
When the history of this U.S. team is written, no one is particularly apt to remember this four-game set. The Americans won the first game, last Monday, up in Palo Alto, 17-8; the second game, on the Fourth of July, back down in Southern California, at Los Alamitos, 14-8; and game three on Friday in San Diego, 7-6.
The games were all different. The Americans were ahead in some games, behind in others, and figured out a way to win all four games.
Along with the undeniable benefit of being on national TV — that, ultimately, is the value of this series: they figured out a way to win.
Sunday’s game was broken open early in the third quarter, when Maggie Steffens scored twice and Kami Craig once. What was once a tight game was suddenly 7-3.
But the revealing lesson in how smart this U.S. team can be came on the sequence that led to the next goal. With time winding down on the 30-second shot clock, Brenda Villa, who along with Heather Petri has played on every American Olympic team since 2000, fired a skip shot that left Hungarian goaltender Flora Bolonyai — a current All-American at USC — no option but to stop it in a way that it rolled out of play behind her. That gave the Americans the ball, and another 30 seconds. Elsie Windes got off another shot that led to another re-set — which led, finally, to a goal by Kelly Rulon, making it 8-3 midway through the third.
“It’s good to play a series of four games and good to be reminded of how quickly things can change,” goalie Betsey Armstrong said, adding a moment later, “You have to remember to play your own game.”
Until July 22, when they leave for London, the Americans will be practicing at their home base at Los Alamitos — with one break. On Monday night, they’re heading as a group to Las Vegas; on Tuesday, they’re due to watch the U.S. men’s basketball team practice and meet with head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
About a year ago, Rulon had bought Krzyzewski’s 2009 book, “The Gold Standard,” about the 2008 U.S. men’s basketball team. It has since been widely read on the water polo team, coach Adam Krikorian said.
Krikorian, who coached at UCLA and knows the John Wooden story well, said that perhaps the U.S. women will glean some “words of wisdom or any kind of inspiration” from Krzyzewski.
Then again, this meeting might turn out to be a two-way street. Seven players on that men’s basketball team will be Olympic newbies. They might want to hear what Brenda Villa and Heather Petri have to say, too.
“It’s really cool,” Petri said, “to feel this level of confidence that our teammates have right now. It’s empowering us as well,” meaning the two of them. “We felt it. We know what’s ahead of us. To see them acknowledging it, and being empowered by it, is really exciting.”