Makenzie Fischer, shown here playing last year for Laguna Beach against Foothill, deferred her freshman season at Stanford to play for the U.S. Olympic team.

O.C. trio part of youth boost for U.S. women's water polo team


Newport Beach’s Maddie Musselman, 17, and sisters Aria Fischer, 17, and Makenzie Fischer, of Laguna Beach are part of a young U.S. team in an Olympic qualifying tournament.

The best women’s water polo team on the planet has drawn from its fertile spawning grounds in Orange County at a critical time.

Three county teenagers, not long removed from starring in high school matches but brimming with potential and maturity, are being counted on this week as the U.S. national team faces the challenge of Olympic qualification.

Coach Adam Krikorian’s 13-player roster for the Olympic qualification tournament in Gouda, Netherlands, features 11 field players, including rising O.C. youths Maddie Musselman, 17, of Newport Beach and sisters Aria and Makenzie Fischer, 17 and 18, respectively, of Laguna Beach.

“It’s incredible,” said Brad Schumacher, an Olympian in water polo and swimming who has coached the Fischers at his SET club.

“It goes to show the amount of development and how important water polo is in Orange County.”

The U.S. women’s water polo team had just one teen – Maggie Steffens – when it struck gold for the first time at the 2012 Olympics.

“It’s never been this young,” Krikorian said of his roster after a recent practice at the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos.

“Age doesn’t matter. As someone once told me, the game doesn’t know how old you are. They’re good enough to play at this level and at this point, they’re not rookies any more. They’ve played in a lot of big games for us.”

The U.S. team arrived in Gouda – a city in South Holland known for its cheese – needing a top-four finish to qualify for the Rio Games this summer.

The Americans couldn’t qualify at the Pan American Games as usual because Brazil is the automatic continental qualifier as the Olympic host. That makes the qualification tournament the lone shot for a U.S. team that stands as the reigning World, World Cup, World League and Pan American champions.

“We’ve been looking forward to March so it’s exciting,” said Makenzie Fischer, who scored twice Monday as the U.S. opened with an 18-1 victory against Japan. “There’s also a little bit of nerves that come along with it.”

Krikorian is confident about his O.C. youngsters. He dismisses the notion that they have risen the ranks during a dominant but transition period for his team.

The two-time Olympic coach returns only four players from his squad at the London Olympics.

“It’s not because a bunch of players left,” the former UCLA coach said. “You give me the 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012 (Olympic) teams, (and) they’re going to be competing for spots and have a good chance to make those rosters as well.”

Krikorian calls Aria Fischer – who scored three goals against Japan – one of the most determined players he has coached. He also praises the U.S. feeder system, including the club teams and coaches, for producing a trio of players whose abilities were recognized early.

But he quickly notes the maturity and commitment Musselman and the Fischers have shown. They’ve been traveling to national team practices throughout Southern California for the past few years.

Musselman and Aria Fischer also withdrew from Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach high schools, respectively, to focus on training with the national team. Makenzie Fischer deferred her freshman season at Stanford this year.

“That’s why I think it’s so great to play a team sport,” Musselman said. “You get to push yourself to the limit with other people who are doing the same exact thing. … Just having the disciplined people around you as well is definitely unique.”

Aria Fischer is the team’s latest arrival. The center turned 17 earlier this month and hasn’t played with the senior team at a major tournament outside the United States. Makenzie and Musselman have been playing for the national team since 2013.

“The opportunity to train early on with these older, more experienced girls really helped develop us much quicker,” Aria Fischer said. “I was just giving it my all, working at every practice and hoping that I would make it.”

The girls entered Orange County’s water polo hotbed with intelligence and athleticism in their genes. Musselman’s father, Jeff, attended Harvard and pitched five seasons in the major leagues. The Fischers’ father, Erich, played water polo at Stanford and for the 1992 U.S. Olympic team.

“It’s not just the physical (that matters),” Schumacher said. “It’s all the other intangibles. The mental side of it. The ability to focus. The ability to handle everything going on in your life and still have success. The ability to be a great teammate.

“There’s a lot of things you have to deal with to reach that highest level.”

Musselman and the Fischers are young but they know the combination.

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