SANTA ANA — Kaleigh Gilchrist is about seven months removed from winning the top prize in college women's water polo. Last May, the Newport Harbor High alumna helped USC win the NCAA Division 1 title.
But now, Gilchrist is playing at an even higher level. Last weekend she played in her first tournament with the U.S. senior women's national team, and Team USA won gold at the Canada Cup.
This week Gilchrist, a senior at USC, is continuing play with the senior national team at the Holiday Cup at Foothill High. She had an assist, a steal and a field block Wednesday night as Team USA beat the Netherlands, 12-9, in its opener at the six-team, round-robin tournament.
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UC Irvine redshirt junior Danielle Warde, a Newport Beach resident, also is playing in the tournament for Team USA. She didn't suit up for the opener, as only 13 of the 16 players on the roster will be active for each match.
Gilchrist, Warde and Corona del Mar High sophomore Maddie Musselman were on the Canada Cup team. It also was the first experience with the senior national team for Musselman, who scored three goals in the tournament.
"All of the young kids did great," U.S. Coach Adam Krikorian said of the Canada Cup gold-medal performance after his team's Holiday Cup opener. "I'm just really proud of the way they competed. They played with a tremendous amount of confidence, for being so inexperienced … Kaleigh and Maddie both played great. It's pretty amazing for a 15-year-old to compete at that level. [Musselman] was the youngest person in the tournament, and played the game like a 24- or 25-year-old.
"Kaleigh, it's just great to have her as part of this, great to get her some of this experience. She's just an extremely intelligent player. I feel comfortable when she's out there for us, because she's so good with the ball. She makes the right decisions."
The match against the Netherlands was a rematch of the 2008 Olympic gold-medal game won by the Netherlands, though only three total women who were in that game competed Wednesday night. One of them, U.S. goalkeeper Betsey Armstrong, made 10 saves.
Melissa Seidemann, who along with Armstrong is one of five gold-medal winners from the 2012 Olympics on the Holiday Cup roster, led all players with five goals. Former Los Alamitos standout Rachel Fattal, former Edison star Alys Williams and KK Clark each added two goals for the U.S., while former Laguna Beach standout Annika Dries drew at least three exclusions at center.
Team USA never trailed after jumping out to a 2-0 lead in the first three minutes of the contest, on goals by Fattal and Seidemann. The lead stayed at two or three goals for the entire second half.
The Netherlands team captain Yasemin Smit cut it to two, at 10-8, with a power-play goal late in the third quarter. It was again cut to two on Sabrina Van Der Sloot's lob from the outside with 4:10 left in the game.
But Fattal added a power-play goal with 2:37 left, and the visitors couldn't get closer. Gilchrist, who played some at two meters in the game, came back to get her steal and field block in the closing minutes to help Team USA hold on.
"What I liked most about tonight was just the way we played defense in the last quarter," Krikorian said. "I wish we would have played that way the whole game, but we stepped up the effort defensively when we needed to. That was key for us, in order to hold on to the lead."
The Holiday Cup continues through Sunday at Foothill. Team USA, which also features UC Irvine women's water polo coach Dan Klatt as an assistant, will play Canada on Thursday, Russia on Friday and Australia on Saturday. All three matches are at 8:30 p.m.
Team USA closes out its tournament against Greece, at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday.