US women's water polo team warming up for London

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Melissa Seidemann fired the ball into the left corner past goalie Tumua Anae as teammate Kami Craig gave her a congratulatory ''Nice!''

These days, even morning shootarounds are important moments for the U.S. women's water polo team with the Olympics only weeks away.

The Americans later won 17-8 in the first of four exhibition games with Hungary on Monday night, a preview of the countries' Olympic opener in London on July 30. These teams also played during a May test event in London, so they should be plenty familiar with each other by the time they face off in preliminary group play in the eight-team Olympic tournament.

''It's interesting, but it works out perfectly because it's someone we can't see in a quarterfinal,'' two-time Olympian attacker Brenda Villa said. ''They're a great team. The opener shouldn't be a shocker.''

Villa and Seidemann are two of five athletes on the roster with Stanford connections for the Americans, who hope to capture their first gold medal after two heartbreaking silvers and a bronze. Their catchphrase: ''Lunging to London.''

This provided a perfect opportunity to prep in their home pool, stars and stripes on their swim caps and suits on a picture-perfect day at Avery Aquatic Center. A crowd of 3,042 crammed the seats on Stanford's campus for the first game with Hungary - a record for a women's water polo match played in the United States.

''It should be great today, it's going to be a packed house,'' said coach Adam Krikorian, a native of nearby Mountain View. ''It's awesome. Olympic fever, nothing beats it.''

Yet this group isn't ready to start the fun just yet. The Americans are determined to bring home that elusive gold medal after two near-misses.

The U.S. team's potential tying shot was blocked in the final seconds against the Netherlands as it lost the gold at Beijing four years ago. And in Sydney in 2000, the Americans lost at the buzzer to host Australia.

''It's definitely not something you can just forget,'' said two-time Olympian defender Jessica Steffens, a former Stanford star whose younger sister, Maggie, is also on the U.S. team. ''You want to put it behind you but it doesn't just go away. We have definitely used that as fuel. Even the girls who are first-timers, they know.''

For last year's Pan American Games champions, these final weeks are all about improving the little things in their game so they're playing at top form once the Olympics begin.

''We're not there yet,'' said attacker Heather Petri, who grew up in the Bay Area and attended California. ''We're especially using the games this week with Hungary to see where we're at. I think the fine-tuning part is the fun part. This team does a very good job of staying in the moment.''

Hungary took to the pool for its hour-long afternoon warm-up minutes after the Americans exited the pool - still jet-lagged after arriving Sunday following 28 hours of travel. The U.S. team considered the Hungarians' aggressive, attacking offensive strategy a good test for their defense.

The next match will be played at the USA Water Polo National Training Center in Los Alamitos on Wednesday, then it's on to San Diego on Friday before the finale Sunday in Newport Beach.

''The U.S. water polo team is one of the best two or three countries we will see,'' Hungary coach Andras Meresz said. ''We hope for good things for the U.S. and us during this series. I hope the spectators will come to the pool and enjoy it. It's good practice for us. The games after group play are very important.''

As much as the frustrating finish in 2008 serves as motivation for the Americans, this is a new team with a new purpose and many new faces to go with those who were there four years ago.

''It doesn't hang over us,'' Villa said. ''We were in there. We want to be part of the group to bring the first gold to the U.S.''

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