USA volleyball uses home crowd to qualify for Games, defend gold
Home court advantage is a luxury the USA men's volleyball team rarely experiences. So after beating Canada 3-0 in the NORCECA Olympic Qualification tournament final in front of a sold-out crowd full of American flag-waving, cowbell-ringing, costume-clad fans, each of the players and coaches took time to soak it all in.
"That was the first time that I had seen anything like that in the States," said David Lee who was named the tournament's Best Blocker. "The support we've had in this tournament has been like nothing else I've ever seen."
The Americans did not lose a single match in the tournament and lost only one set in all five of its matches. With the victory, the team earned a berth to the London Olympics where they will attempt to defend their 2008 gold medal.
The tournament marked the first time in history the team has had an opportunity to qualify for the Olympics on their own home soil. It also marked a very welcome turning point, in which they finally found the cohesion they've been searching for since Beijing.
"Four years is a long time and each year you've got to put something together and find a new rhythm with a new team," said tournament MVP Clay Stanley. "Usually, the fourth year of the Olympics is the time that these teams come together and gel and I think we're starting to do that right now."
Most of its starters from 2008 return, including Stanley, who was also named MVP in Beijing. But, until last week the team had not settled on a starting setter. After auditioning three setters for the job, head coach Alan Knipe settled on 36-year old Donald Suxho. With his starting spot secure, Suxho was free to focus on tightening up the team's offense.
"I feel the trust and support from the guys," said Suxho. "It feels like my teammates trust me, my coaches trust me, and for me that's the best feeling and that makes me more relaxed to play and give my best out there."
It took a few matches, but the Americans improved each time they walked on the floor. The timing and rhythm miscues of the early matches gave way to a smoothly-run, well-spread offense by tournament's end. As the week unfolded, Team USA metamorphosed into what looked like a legitimate medal contending squad.
The turning point came in the semifinal match against World No. 5 Cuba. The Americans lost the first set, but stayed patient and relied on the experience of the veterans to win the next three sets. They also got great production from two young players, outside hitter Matt Anderson and middle blocker Russell Holmes.
"We were really tested in that match," said Knipe. "I'm proud of the mental toughness of these guys, especially the veterans, leading some of the youth we have. It didn't go our way in set one against Cuba but we were able to turn it around and play well and really put together a nice match."
There will be no time to celebrate the victory and the Olympic berth. The team was scheduled for just 24 hours off before boarding a plane for Italy to play the first leg of the FIVB World League tournament. After that, they'll return home to Anaheim for a three-week training block where they'll work to smooth out any remaining rough spots in their game. The USA men are currently ranked No. 6 in the world, but believe they can compete with any of the top teams, all of which are closely matched in skill and talent.
"We have to re-establish ourselves as a team," said Lee. "Coming off of the win in Beijing, being gold medalists, we have this expectation that we should be at that level immediately and it is not that way. It is a total rebuilding process and I think that we have to establish ourselves as a world power again."
Winning the tournament and qualifying for the Olympics provided a much-needed confidence boost for the Americans who believe they are well on their way to where they need to be at the start of the Games.
Asked after the match who would contend with the U.S. for a medal in London, Lee rattled off a list of the top-ranked teams that included Brazil, Bulgaria, Italy and Poland. When asked the same question, Stanley had a different take on who could contend with the Americans in London.
"Nobody," Stanley said. "Let's win this damn thing."