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RIO DE JANEIRO — Santa Ynez native Kami Craig is the only remaining member from the 2008 United States Olympic water polo team, which won silver at the Beijing Summer Games.

Craig goes for her third straight medal and second consecutive Olympic gold medal today. The Americans take on Italy in the final of the women's water polo competition. The game is scheduled to start at 11:30 a.m. PDT.

Craig grew up in Santa Ynez and played her first two seasons of high school water polo at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School, before transferring to Santa Barbara High for her junior and senior years. 

Despite being the longest-tenured member of the U.S. team, Craig has continued to contribute to the squad as the team's starting center. Craig scored the U.S.'s first goal in the quarterfinal win over host Brazil on Monday. 

In the semifinal win over Hungary Wednesday, Craig scored a dazzling redirection goal to put the U.S. up 12-9, providing an insurance goal in the 14-10 win.

Craig isn't the only Santa Barbara County native playing for the U.S. Santa Barbara's Samantha Hill, who played at Dos Pueblos High, is a reserve goalkeeper for the club. Kiley Neushul is a driver and also a Dos Pueblos grad.

Craig's defense and presence at the center position, typically planted two meters directly in front of goal on either end of the pool, has been a major key for the U.S., allowing other players to find the back of the cage. Craig's experience has also been invaluable, as she's often seen coaching up the squad alongside head coach Adam Krikorian.

Captain Maggie Steffens, the top player in the world, leads all players with 16 goals in five games at these Olympics.

The U.S. will likely have to slow down the scoring of Italy's Arianna Garibotti and Roberta Bianconi. Garibotti scored twice on five shots in the quarterfinal win over China. She then followed that up with five goals on just six shots against Russia in the semifinals. Garibotti has scored 12 times in Rio.

Italy won gold at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. United States has won a medal at every Olympics where women's water polo was played, dating back to 2000.

The Americans won gold in 2012 after silver in 2008. In 2004, they took bronze when Italy won gold. They won the silver in 2000 in Sydney. They are trying to become the first team to defend gold at the Olympics. 

Krikorian told NBC that Italy presents an enormous challenge for his squad.

"Besides us they have obviously been the hottest team in this tournament," Krikorian said, according to NBC's Cara Cooper. "I watched a little bit of their semifinal and I saw how well they were shooting the ball from the outside. Their defense has been really good and their goalie is playing fantastic. It's going to be a heck of a battle and we are going to have our hands full. No doubt about that.”

Italy's Roberta Bianconi feels her team's defense will be critical today in the gold medal game.

"We know that they have very good players, so what we have to do is keep our defense united," Bianconi told NBC. "That is our point of strength."

The United States has some history with Italy, to say the least. The Italians are the last team to beat the Americans, winning a match last year. This is the fourth team the two countries have met in the Olympics. Italy beat the U.S. 6-5 in the 2004 Olympic semifinals en route to gold. 

The teams drew 9-9 at the 2008 Summer Games, where the U.S. lost to the Netherlands 9-8 in the gold medal game. 

Craig is nearly 11 years older than the youngest player on the American team, driver Madeline Musselmann, who was born in June of 1998. Craig turned 29 on July 21. 


Sports Editor

Alumni Fresno State