PALO ALTO, Calif. -- As talented as Cal freshman Carla Carrega is, it’s stunning that she is the first Italian women’s water polo player to play water polo at an elite United States university.

It’s not for lack of trying on Cal head coach Robert Corso’s part. The 10th-year coach has been trying to get an Italian on his squad for years but for one reason or another it didn’t work out.

“I’ve been working on getting Italian players for six years and this is the first one that could do it,” Corso said. “We took the program in another direction five years ago and have the blessings of the athletic department and the university but it’s been tough.”

Carrega caught Corso’s eye at a junior international match and the two started emailing back and forth.

2015 NC Women's Water Polo Championship
Championship Highlights
Stanford repeats as national champion vs. UCLA
Reger: Senior leaders step up when Stanford needed it
Reger: UCLA goalie Hill improves after year away
Semifinals Highlights
Stanford sets up title-game rematch with UCLA
Reger: Carrega a ‘perfect match' at California
UCLA tops Cal to clinch 10th trip to title game
First round Highlights
Reger: Big West gaining ground on powerhouse MPSF
California escapes UC Irvine on McKee goal
UCLA advances to semifinals for fifth consecutive year
Reger: Kistler a pleasant surprise for UC San Diego
Southern California stomps Hawaii in quarterfinals
Stanford rolls by Princeton, advances to semis
Reger: Stanford looks to become first host champion
Brackets: Interactive | Printable
“I had the opportunity to coach our Olympic team three times and I have a lot of colleagues that train and coach and play in Italy,” Corso said. "I had someone call me and tell me about her and say she was going to be special and would I be interested."

Corso has tried to recruit five players before landing Carrega.

“It has to be a perfect fit,” Corso said. “You have to be a good player, but you have to be a serious student and you have to speak English. She met all of those criteria. Other girls that were on the Olympic team and that play club someone was missing. It might have been academics, it might have been English, but there was something missing. It took a while.”

Another reason is the difference in family dynamic.

“Culture is a reason it’s tough,” Corso said. “A lot of kids live at home until they are 20 years old. It’s not just women, it’s men. It’s tough at times in some of those countries and you are not able to financially move out when you are young.”

Cal is a very difficult school to quality for academically and Carrega wasn’t sure she was going to get in to the university.

“I studied really hard to get to Cal,” Carrega said. “I knew this could be a step for me. I was worried my grades wouldn’t be good enough, but I worked so hard.”

That wasn’t nearly as hard as telling her parents of her decision.

“They couldn’t believe it,” Carrega said. “They thought I was joking. They said, ‘You can’t go to America. It’s so far away.’ My friends thought I was crazy. They said ‘Why are you leaving?’ ”

Adjusting to college is difficult for any freshman, but for Carrega there were so many aspects to get used to.

“The first month was so hard,” Carrega said. “I think the first week I cried every day on the phone with my mom. But they were happy. They knew it was such a great opportunity for me to get a degree here. They knew it was for the best.”

Adjusting to school and water polo was equally as hard.

“The game is different than it is in Italy,” Carrega said. “The positions have different names and different numbers but I am trying to learn as much as I can. We play a lot of zone in Europe and girls in America swim so much. They swim so much in the pool. The first days I couldn’t believe how much they swam. I was not use to training so much. I was also not used to practicing in the morning. In Italy I would go to class all day and practice after.”

She has made the transition well, according to Corso.

“I really believe when she goes home to Italy they are not only going to see a different player they are going to see a different person,” Corso said. “She’s somebody who is going to be a candidate for the 2020 Olympic team.”

Carrega is returning home in two weeks and while she is excited to see friends and family, it's not without a bit of sadness.

“In some ways I am sad to leave,” she said. “I have become so comfortable here. It’s like I have a second life.”

There is also the possibility she might be able to influence more Italian women to play in the states.

“I hope more girls from Italy come here,” Carrega said. “It is weird that no one else has come before me. I hope this opens that road and more come from Italy.”