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US women get shot at 1st Olympic water polo gold

Wednesday - 8/8/2012, 1:37am  ET

By RYAN LUCAS
Associated Press

LONDON (AP) - Four years ago, Maggie Steffens watched from the stands as her sister Jessica and the rest of the U.S. women's water polo team fell one goal short against the Netherlands in the final of the Beijing Olympics.

This year, the 19-year-old Steffens will be in the pool as she and the rest of the U.S. team get a fresh crack at a gold medal, this time against Spain in Thursday's final of the London Games.

"I was hoping I'd be in the same situation, but hopefully we can change and get a gold," Steffens said.

Despite being the youngest player on the team, Steffens has played a huge role for the Americans so far in London, netting seven goals in her Olympic debut against Hungary and four more in an 11-9 semifinal win against Australia on her way to racking up a tournament-leading tally of 16 so far.

"Oh, she's huge, she's a stud," U.S. goalkeeper Betsey Armstrong said. "Like anybody on our team, she steps it up when she sees that as her role. We focus a lot on not being a two to three dominant-player team. We need anybody who can step up against any given team, and Maggie's filled that role well."

The U.S. will likely need one more sparkling performance out of Steffens _ not to mention Armstrong in goal _ to beat an unbeaten Spain team that impressed in London with sharp shooting and solid defense.

First up, the Americans have to unwind after a punishing and nerve-racking semifinal Tuesday against rival Australia that went to overtime after coach Adam Krikorian made a huge blunder, calling for an illegal time-out, which handed a last-second penalty to Australia that was quickly converted to force the extra session.

The Americans recovered _ behind a goals from Steffens and Kami Craig and some lock-down defensive play _ to pull off the win, but it wasn't without drama.

"We just need to reset and refocus," said Armstrong, who had 10 saves in the match. "When a gold medal is on the line, everybody steps it up. ... We need to be prepared for a fight from anybody."

On the line will be a long elusive first Olympic gold medal for the U.S. in women's water polo.

One of the world powers in the sport for years, the U.S. has medaled in the women's event at every Olympics since the game debuted in 2000 but has never won gold. It earned silver in Sydney, bronze four years later in Athens and then silver again in Beijing in 2008.

This year they'll have to get past a Spain team that is making the most of the country's first appearance in women's Olympic water polo.

The Spanish entered the tournament as a dark horse, having won the Olympic qualifying tournament in impressive fashion.

They bring a host of young talent to the game, including Anni Espar Llaquet, who has scored 13 goals in London, as well as Maica Garcia, who gave the U.S. fits in front of the goal in the teams' 9-9 draw in the preliminary round.

"We arrived here because we have confidence in our possibilities," coach Miguel Oca said. "We created a team with very young players, and they've been growing, growing, growing, and now this is the result."

As well as Oca's team has played, they're under no illusions that beating a U.S. team with a blend of veterans and young stars will be a tough task.

"We have to play excellent to beat the United States because they are a very super good team," Oca said. "They play very well, they are strong, they swim, they shoot, they are very, very good in attack and defense. We have to do a perfect game."

And how will Spain do that?

"They have their weapons," Oca said. "We have to make the most of ours."

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Ryan Lucas can be reached on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/relucasz


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)