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Six O.C. players make youthful Olympic men's water polo team
SAN DIEGO – USA Water Polo found an awe-inspiring location Thursday to announce its men’s roster for the Rio Olympics.
On the sun-drenched flight deck of the USS Midway, U.S. Coach Dejan Udovicic revealed a 13-player roster filled with nine first-time Olympians, including two 18-year-olds.
The Midway was known for its longevity, and that could be the case for the playing careers of several members of the latest U.S. men’s Olympic team.
“This is the first time since me (in 2000) that we have guys coming out of high school,” said captain Tony Azevedo, 34, the Long Beach Wilson High star named to his record fifth Olympic roster.
“It’s great for the future of the sport.”
The U.S. roster features class of 2016 high school graduates Thomas Dunstan of Mater Dei and Ben Hallock of Harvard-Westlake of Studio City.
Dunstan, 18, is an emerging left-handed attacker and Hallock, 18, is an up-and-coming center.
The duo’s selections bounced two veterans, defender Jackson Kimbell and left-hander Nikola Vavic, from the squad.
“He can be the best center in the world in the upcoming years,” Udovicic said of Hallock. “He needs to work hard. If someone can remove Terry Schroeder as the best center in the United States ever, it’s Ben Hallock. ... (But) a lot of things depend on him.”
Udovicic and Azevedo said Dunstan impressed on the team’s recent trip to China, which included a silver medal in the FINA World League Super Final. It was the Team USA’s first trip to the gold-medal game of the tournament since 2008.
“Dunstan can in the future be some kind of utility (player),” Udovicic said. “He came (on) very strong last month. He convinced me in the games in China that the (shoulder) surgery and mental (struggles) are behind him.”
Orange County’s contributions to the youth movement didn’t stop with Dunstan.
Goalie McQuin Baron (Mater Dei) and attacker Luca Cupido (Newport Harbor) are 20, and former Stanford teammates Bret Bonanni (Mater Dei) and Alex Bowen are both first-time Olympians at 22.
Bonanni praised Mater Dei coach Chris Segesman for helping develop the trio of Monarchs.
“All three of us owe this to Chris and all the work that he does,” Bonanni said of Segesman, an Olympian in 2004.
Former Villa Park standout Josh Samuels, who turns 25 Friday, also joined the first-time Olympians.
“I’m one of the old guys on this team,” Samuels, the former UCLA player, said with a smile.
Center John Mann (Corona del Mar), 31, made his second consecutive U.S. Olympic team and joins Azevedo, goalie Merrill Moses, 38, and utility Jesse Smith, 33, as the lone returners from a veteran squad that finished eighth at the 2012 Games.
“The average age in (London) was probably 34 and now it’s probably 23, 22,” Mann said. “With that, you get this whole different vibe. You get this youthful vibe, one that I really like.”
Azevedo, Smith and Moses are the only remaining ties to the United States’ 2008 silver medal team.
“We have a good mix with a couple core veterans who have been to multiple Olympics, kind of a middle-age group and then a younger group,” Cupido said.
“If (our) emotions are going good, it’s kind of scary for the other teams. Hopefully, we don’t make those mistakes (because) of a lack of experience.”
Udovicic said the U.S. squad isn’t among the medal favorites in Rio but is determined to contend, with an eye on winning gold in 2020.
“Rio can only be one step forward for us,” he said. “We are coming.”