Wednesday August 8th, 2012

LONDON -- Hovering above the net like a man in a jetpack, Italy's Ivan Zaytsev delivered a lacerating spike that the Americans couldn't dig out. After trailing 4-1, then 14-11 in the first set of their men's volleyball quarterfinal against favored Team USA, the Italians had tied the score, 25-25. This was the turning of the tide.

In the stands at venerable Earls Court Arena, chants of "USA! USA!" were drowned out, for the first time, by partisans from the other side: "EE-TAL-YA! EE-TAL-YA!"

Three points later, Dragan Travica's rocket serve got a piece of the back line: Italy 28, Team USA 26. Travica's ace ended an electrifying game, and seemed to deliver a gut punch to the Americans, who never did find their rhythm for the rest of the evening. With Travica and Cristian Savani racking up eight aces between them, and with the favored Americans pressing and playing tight, the Italians had an easier time winning the second and third sets (25-20, 25-20). They move on to the semis. The Americans go home.

It wasn't supposed to end like this for Team USA. Four years ago, galvanized by the stabbing death of a coach's father-in-law, the Americans stormed to a gold medal. Since then, Long Beach State's Alan Knipe replaced coach Hugh McCutcheon, who moved over to coach the U.S. women (who face South Korea in a Thursday morning semifinal).

Knipe's squad had the luxury of not being considered favorites in this tournament. But they'd improved steadily since last spring, taking silver at the prestigious World League tournament. They seemed to catch a wave at these Games, going 4-1 in pool play, including a four-set victory over top-ranked Brazil. They were coalescing, gaining confidence ... until Wednesday night, when the Americans sent an inordinately high number of serves out of bounds, or into the net.

"Yes," Knipe confirmed afterward, "there were a lot more unforced errors in most areas of the game" -- many more, he said, than his guys had committed earlier in the tournament. "We had some at really crucial times ... That wasn't the team we've been most of the summer."

It's easy to forget that summer is in full swing from inside this draughty old barn. But let us not judge Earls Court too harshly. No, it doesn't have sand or bikinis or the Horse Guard Parade Dancers to distend spectators' eyeballs between games. The Prime Minister doesn't live a jump serve away. But Earls Court Arena, the ancient and cavernous venue for that other species of volleyball -- the one with more players and less skin -- is not without its charms. You just have to work harder to find them. I admired the venue's Art Deco façade, and was intrigued by its history. Before it ever hosted its thousands of concerts Earls Court welcomed Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in the late 19th century, Reuters informs us, "before a permanent venue was constructed in the 1930s."

"The exhibition center served as the venue for a British Union of Fascists rally in 1939 and for the manufacture of London's air defense balloons during the Second World War." It certainly has the feel of a hangar, or vast warehouse. While the professional-caliber Horse Guard Dancers did not perform, the spirits of spectators were entertained by a troupe of junior high- and high-school aged young women called the "Crimson Heat Cheerleader Team."

Even the Crimson Heat couldn't lift the spirits of Team USA. "This is devastating," said Knipe. "There's a lot of guys in there, they've invested their entire life" to succeed in the Olympics. "They've been to the mountain top, and they wanted to get back."

They were prevented by an Italian squad that had come under withering criticism for its performance in pool play. Though they won three matches, they lost twice, to Poland and Bulgaria, or "Bulgary," as embattled Italian coach Mauro Berruto put it. Berruto -- who could be seen angrily haranguing members of Italian media after the match -- admitted that it had been "really painful for me to read many comments after our match" against Bulgaria.

"This is the team I was looking for," he said of his players after the win over Team USA. "This is the team I have missed the previous five matches."

Savani, who was lethal tonight, had not been having a good Olympics. Asked to comment on the play of Savani, his captain, Berruto delivered my favorite quote of the Games, so far: "I think in sport as in life, you see how strong you are when being strong is the only option you have."

Not bad for a guy speaking in his second language.

"I promised my daughter and my son we [would] play for a medal," he went on, "and we will."

No such luck for the Americans.

"It sucks," concluded Clayton Stanley, who played in his third Olympics. "It sucks to go out 0-3, it sucks not to play your best, it sucks not to advance." On the bright side, maybe he can score some tickets for beach volleyball Thursday night!

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