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Friday, September 22
U.S. advances to gold medal game

SYDNEY, Australia -- Maureen O'Toole has had many highs in 23 years as the best women to ever play water polo. Nothing, though, has felt like this.

Coralie Simmons, left, of the U.S. battles for the ball with Ellen van Der Weijden-Bast of the Netherlands.
"It's the highest we've gotten, the highest we've ever reached. It's huge," said O'Toole the 39-year-old star who dreamed about this goal since she first was told women couldn't win Olympic water polo medals.

O'Toole and her teammates will get a chance at gold after the United States took a 6-5 semifinal victory over the Netherlands at the Sydney Games on Friday night.

"It's awesome," said the 39-year-old, chirping excitedly like her much younger teammates.

O'Toole left her mark everywhere, as she has all week long.

She scored America's first two goals, held back her defender long enough for Heather Moody to scoop up a loose ball for the game-winner, and broke up the Netherlands' last scoring chance.

"We know we're going to get a medal," U.S. coach Guy Baker said. "A lot of this is indescribable."

Imagine how it will feel Saturday at the Sydney International Aquatic Center -- it holds more than four times the 4,000 capacity at the Ryde Aquatic Leisure Center -- with the hometown Aussies the gold-medal opponent.

"We've gotten our second step," said O'Toole, who returned from retirement for one Olympic chance. "We know there's something left for us to do."

The United States' only defeat this week, 7-6, came in a highly charged game that was decided on a late Australian goal.

"We think we'll be ready," said Coralie Simmons, whose goal drew the United States to 5-4 just before the half.

The Netherlands will face Russia for the bronze medal.

O'Toole is playing like a star in leading the United States. But there were a lot of heroines in this one. Moody collected a loose ball for America's go-ahead goal with 6:09 remaining. And goalie Bernice Orwig made a spectacular save on Carla Quint's blast from a few feet away in the final minute.

The players jumped and cheered when it was over, hugging each other on the pool deck.

O'Toole, a big grin on her face, dried off and hugged her 8-year-old daughter. Family and friends of the U.S. team draped an American flag over their backs.

"This is what I came back for, this is what I worked for," O'Toole said. "It's all been worth it."

The Americans will take part in the final everyone expected -- and the folks at the 17,500-seat Sydney International Aquatic Center can't wait for -- against host Australia.

The place is expected to a frenzied sellout.

"I'm sure they won't be rooting for us," Baker said.

Early on, this game looked like a U-S-A pool party. O'Toole said she came out more excited than she thought she would, scoring two goals as the United States led 3-1 only three minutes in.

But the Netherlands, a factor in almost every major tournament it enters, rallied as Danielle de Bruijn and Mirjan Op den Velde scored two goals each.

When Op den Velde slammed in her second two minutes before the half, the orange-clad Dutch fans erupted in celebration over the 5-3 lead.

The American comeback began with Simmons' goal. Robin Beauregard banked one off the right sidepost to tie it at 5 with 3:58 left.

Moody was in the right place at the right time for the winner, picking up a short ball left for O'Toole and dumping it in the net.

The Dutch team's best chance to tie came when Quint was alone in front of Orwig. The shot just glanced off the goalie's fingers, but it was enough to send it off to the side -- and the Americans into the gold-medal game.

The only American team to win water polo's top prize came at the St. Louis Games 96 years ago, when no one but the United States competed. The New York Athletic Club took the gold, with two other club teams earning silver and bronze.

American teams have taken two silvers and three bronze medals since.

O'Toole and her teammates talked of just winning a medal here. But now comes the game -- and the chance -- they traveled to Sydney for.

"I always try and tell myself this is just a game," said O'Toole, who'll retire after Saturday's contest. "But this is a lot more than that for us."
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