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PHOTO BY JAKE MATER, USA WATER POLO
Luca Cupido and the U.S. men's water polo team defeated Serbia, 11-10, Sunday at El Toro.

Cupido's late strikes help U.S. extend streak against Serbia

OCVARSITY.COM

LAKE FOREST The U.S. men’s water polo team started the week winless against Serbia since its silver medal-run at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Now, the Americans can’t lose.

Former Newport Harbor attacker Luca Cupido scored two power-play goals in the final 45 seconds of the fourth period, including the winner with two seconds remaining, to lift the Americans last Serbia, 11-10, on Sunday night for their third consecutive victory against the reigning European champion.

U.S. goalie Merrill Moses added 12 saves at El Toro High as the Americans rallied from a three-goal deficit in the first half.

“This has definitely never happened before,” U.S. captain Tony Azevedo said after a physical match in front of an estimated 1,200. “We’re really starting to come together. I think this is going to be a good start for us to really build (on).”

Team USA snapped its drought against Serbia on Tuesday with a 12-10 victory at UC San Diego and won, 9-5, Thursday in Riverside. The series concludes Tuesday in Chicago.

But Sunday marked the first match in the series that Serbia played with the trio Azevedo called the “three powerhouses”: Dusko Pijetlovic, left-hander Filip Filipovic and Andrija Prlainovic.

U.S. coach Dejan Udovicic, who left the Serbian team to take the reins of Team USA, called Filipovic the best player the world.

The Americans and Cupido capitalized on late exclusions by two of the three Serbian stars. Cupido, now a sophomore-to-be at Cal, tied the score, 10-10, by blasting a shot in off the side post on a 6-on-4 advantage with 45 seconds left after Filipovic and a teammate were excluded. Then with two seconds left, Cupido skipped in a shot from nearly 10 meters in the center of the pool after Prlainovic sank Josh Samuels (Villa Park) on the wing.

“I knew it was my shot and I had to take it,” said Cupido, who finished with two goals to share the team-lead with Azevedo, center John Mann (Corona del Mar) and newcomer Alex Roelse. “Fortunately, it went in.”

Udovicic offered strong praise for Cupido, who also made two outstanding entry passes to Mann at center, "I think Luca is one of the most talented players right now in his age (group) in the world. I think he can be groomed to improve."

Besides Cupido’s late dramatics, the U.S. power-play struggled, finishing 5 for 17. Serbia went for 3 for 11. Udovicic praised his team for its rally but cautioned that the ultimate goal this summer is to capture the Pan American Games and earn an automatic berth in the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

"It's good but it doesn't mean anything for me," he said. "We got our goals and our goal this year to win Pan American Games and qualify directly to the Olympics. ... (But the victory) is good for confidence, it's good for atmosphere, it's good for practice. It's totally different when you're getting into practice from the winning position."

And with three straight victories against Serbia, Team USA is a unique position.


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