LOCALS IN LONDON
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LONDON — Maggie Steffens made sure her first touch of the ball at the Olympics counted. And nearly every other one after that, too.
In her Olympic debut, the 19-year-old Californian scored seven goals — six in the first half alone — and the U.S. women's water polo team survived a pesky Hungarian squad to win its opening match Monday at the London Games 14-13.
"It's awesome. My heartbeat is still pounding. I'm walking through here and just kind of taking a deep breath and letting it sink in," Steffens said. "There is so much energy running through me, I don't really remember what happened in the first few minutes."
Catching the ball on the deep on the left side with less than a minute gone in the first quarter, Steffens lobbed the ball over Hungary goalkeeper Flora Bolonyai to score her first goal of the night. She followed it up with a clinic of outside shooting, firing shots — one after another — past Hungary defenders and slotting them just inside the post.
Steffens wasn't the only one to shine in her Olympic debut though. Courtney Mathewson added four goals for the Americans, including the final one, to give the U.S. the two-goal cushion it would need to hold on.
The win puts the U.S. even with Spain, winners earlier Monday over China, atop Group A.
The U.S. has finished on the podium at every Olympics since the women's game debuted in 2000, taking home a bronze in 2004 and silver in 2000 and 2008. With seven players back from the Beijing squad, the Americans are the gold medal favorite in London along with rival Australia.
But if Monday's performance is any indication, the lack of experience on the sport's grandest stage among the team's younger players doesn't appear to be much of a problem.
Steffens' seven goals — six of which came in the first half — caused jaws to drop at the packed water polo arena at London's Olympic Park.
"She's a stud, I mean come on, seven goals?" said U.S. captain Brenda Villa, who is in her fourth Olympics and is a prolific scorer. "She's a youngster, but you could never tell in the water. She plays like she's been playing at this level for a long time."
Those who have known Steffens the longest — such as Olympic teammate, roommate and older sister Jessica Steffens — weren't taken off guard.
"Surprised? No," Jessica said. "She has so much potential in her and I think she's been waiting to bust out of her skin. Was I happy? Yes. Was I surprised that they didn't want to stop her? Yes. But if she's going to keep scoring goals, we're absolutely going to let her."
The younger Steffens, who was in Beijing to watch Jessica and the rest of the U.S. team earn silver four years ago, graduated from high school in California in 2011, and postponed going to Stanford by a year in order to train for the Olympics.
"This is more important," she said with a laugh. "Stanford can wait for the possibility of a medal."
The Americans' main rivals for gold in London are the Australians, who earlier Monday broke open a tight game with four unanswered goals in the second half to edge Italy 10-8.
Captain Kate Gynther scored three goals and Nicola Zagame chipped in with two for Australia.
"An Olympic game is always going to be hard, and Italy are a quality opposition, so it was a very tough game and we're just happy to come out on top," Gynther said.
Tania di Mario and Federica Radicchi scored twice for the 2012 European champion Italians.
Both countries are past Olympic champions in women's water polo — Australia won gold in 2000 when the women's game made its Olympic debut, while Italy claimed the title four years later in Athens.
Joining Australia at the top of Group B is Russia, which beat Britain 7-6 on a late breakaway goal from Evgeniya Ivanova to spoil the host nation's Olympic women's water polo debut.
The eight-team field is broken down into two groups of eight. The results from the preliminary stage determine the team's seeding for the quarterfinals.