U.S. Men's Volleyball Have Pieces in Place for Olympic Glory
Is the 2008 U.S. Men's Team - ranked No. 3 in the world and 2008 World League champion - the one that will recapture the glory of the 80s and early 90s, when Team USA won gold in 1984 and '88 and bronze in '92? It seems to have many of the ingredients necessary to win a medal: a roster of experienced and professional athletes, a no-nonsense coach who stresses team success ahead of individual agendas and a new headquarters at sea level surrounded by supportive fans of the sport.
The pieces are all in place. All that remains is for the Games to begin.
"We have a lot of good volleyball players. We have some depth, we have some experience," U.S. Head Coach Hugh McCutcheon said. "And we have guys who believe that they can do it. I think that's important."
No one brings more Olympic experience to the team than setter Lloy Ball (Fort Wayne, Ind.), who is competing in his fourth Games in Beijing. Ball was 24, the youngest volleyball player ever to compete in the Olympic Games, when he played in Atlanta in 1996 and finished ninth. He was 28 in Sydney in 2000 when the U.S. Men tied for 11th and 32 in Athens in 2004 when Team USA finished a surprising fourth.
Since returning to the U.S. Men's Team in 2007, Ball has handled the majority of the starting setting duties as Team USA won the Americas' Cup and the NORECA Continental Championship, finished fourth at the FIVB World Cup and first at the 2008 NORCECA Continental Olympic Qualifier and the World League.
He was named the MVP and Best Setter at both the 2007 NORCECA Continental Championship and the 2008 World League Final Round.
But note that the U.S. Men were having success even before Ball's return. They finished third in the 2007 FIVB World League with Kevin Hansen (Newport Beach, Calif.) as the primary starting setter. Team USA also won the silver medal at the Pan American Games with Hansen as the primary setter.
At outside hitter, Team USA will look to Reid Priddy (Richmond, Va.) and Riley Salmon (League City, Texas), both of whom competed at the 2004 Summer Games. Priddy has been the team's leading scorer for the past two seasons and is its top passer as well. Salmon has provided consistent numbers as both a scorer and passer.
Hot on their heels, has been newcomer Sean Rooney (Wheaton, Ill.), who left behind a career in beach volleyball to return to the indoor game in 2007. Rooney was named "Best Spiker" of the NORCECA Continental Olympic Qualifying tournament on Jan. 6-11 in Caguas, Puerto Rico, which the U.S. Men won to qualify for Beijing. Scott Touzinsky (St. Louis, Mo.) has also been getting playing time at outside hitter and as a serving specialist. Touzinsky joined the team in 2007 after recovering from a serious knee injury.
Tom Hoff (Park Ridge, Ill.) and Ryan Millar (Palmdale, Calif.) each bring two Olympic Games' worth of experience to the middle blocker position. Hoff has served as the team's captain since 2005 and has been the player the team looks to when it needs a key block or an important win.
Millar was named USA Volleyball's men's indoor player of the year for 2007 after finishing the season as the team's leading blocker, second-leading scorer and playing in more sets than any player but libero Rich Lambourne (Tustin, Calif.).
David Lee (Alpine, Calif.), playing in his first Olympic Games, has brought consistent hitting and blocking to the position and has quickly gained great international experience by playing in two World Leagues, the Pan American Games and the World Cup among other tournaments.
At opposite, Clay Stanley (Honolulu, Hawai'i) will be looking to make his second Olympic appearance and continues to be the team's top server, finishing the 2007 season with 39 aces. He was named the top server at the 2008 NORCECA Olympic Qualifier in January.
While Gabe Gardner also competed at the 2004 Summer Games, he did not play opposite. Gardner switched positions from outside hitter to opposite at the beginning of 2007 and made the most of the transition, finishing the season as the team's fourth-leading scorer with 329 points. He averaged 3.82 points per set.
Finally, Lambourne has been the team's starting libero since 2005 and has shown improvement every year. He was named the top libero at both the 2007 and 2008 World League final rounds, and he was named best libero and best receiver at the NORCECA Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
The Coach and Staff
Hugh McCutcheon of Christchurch, New Zealand, took over as the U.S. Men's Head Coach in 2005 after Doug Beal left to take over as USA Volleyball CEO. McCutcheon served as Beal's assistant at the 2004 Olympic Games and had a good idea of what the head coaching job would entail as August, 2008 drew closer.
He has encouraged the U.S. players to put the team ahead of their personal agendas and to take a professional attitude. After a difficult season in 2006 in which the U.S. Men finished 10th at two major tournaments - the FIVB World League and the World Championship - the new attitude started to catch on and the team attained a new cohesiveness.
"What you don't want is someone who is so invested in their own personal agenda that they compromise the greater team goal of winning a medal," McCutcheon said. "I think we have a good group. They are absolutely professional. They understand the magnitude of what we are trying to achieve."
In Beijing, McCutcheon will not only rely on his own experience, but also the experience of his regular staff, including assistant coaches Ron Larsen and John Speraw, technical manager Jamie Morrison and athletic trainer Aaron Brock.
Marv Dunphy, the Pepperdine men's volleyball coach who was the head coach of the 1988 U.S. Men's Team that won a gold medal in Seoul, South Korea and who also served as the U.S. Men's consultant coach at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, will serve as the consultant coach.
Carl McGown, who has coached at six world championships and six Olympic Games, will serve as a scout.
Rob Browning, head coach of the women's volleyball team at St. Mary's College of California who was an assistant for the U.S. Men's National Team at the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games, will serve as team leader.
The men's Olympic volleyball competition will begin Aug. 10 and run through the finals on Aug. The preliminary matches will be held at both Capital Indoor Stadium and Beijing Institute of Technology Gymnasium and the finals will be held at the Capital Indoor Stadium.
There is one thing to know about all the teams that will be competing in Beijing: there are no slouches at the Olympic Games. It is a cliché, but on any given day, any team can beat any other team.
For the U.S. Men, the trick will be not to let one loss ruin their tournament.
"You just have to stay focused on what you really want in the end," Olympic veteran Hoff said. "Playing a bad game or bad set is not the end of it. It's a long tournament."
The U.S. Men will begin competition in Pool A on Sunday, Aug. 10 at 12:30 p.m. local time against Venezuela (20th in the world) at Capital Indoor Stadium. The U.S. Men are 1-1 against Venezuela since 2004 and 9-3 since 1981, having lost to the South Americans at the 2006 World Championships and beaten them at the 2007 Pan American Games.
On Aug. 12, Team USA will battle Italy (10th in the world) at 12:30 p.m. at Capital Indoor Stadium The U.S. Men are 5-1 against Italy since 2004 and 19-37 since 1981. The two teams last faced each other at the 2007 World League where the United States went 4-0.
On Aug. 14, the United States will play Bulgaria (fourth in the world) at 10 p.m. at Capital Indoor Stadium. The U.S. Men are 2-4 against Bulgaria since 2004 and 21-13 overall. The teams played each other in four 2008 World League pool play matches, with the United States winning one home match and losing one and Bulgaria taking both of its home matches. However, the United States did not take four of its usual starting players to Bulgaria.
On Aug. 16, Team USA will face host China (21st in the world) at the Beijing Institute of Technology Gymnasium. The United States is 3-1 against China since 2004 and 39-12 since 1981. The U.S. Men lost to China at the 2008 Four Nations Tournament in Germany; however the United States did not bring its starting team to the tournament.
Team USA will finish pool play on Aug. 18 at 10 p.m. against Japan (11th in the world) at Capital Indoor Stadium. The U.S. Men are 10-0 against Japan since 2004 and 136-59 since 1981. The two teams played five times in 2007, four times in World League and once at the World Cup, with the United States winning all five matches.
The quarterfinals will begin on Wednesday, Aug. 20, which is when the top four teams in each pool will cross over to face teams in the other pool. Pool B consists of Brazil, Egypt, Germany, Poland, Russia, and Serbia.
Brazil, ranked No. 1 in the world, has been the dominant force in men's volleyball since the turn of the century, winning every World Championship, World Cup and World League title from 2002 until 2008. However the U.S. Men have had success against Brazil, going 12-15 against the South Americans since 2000 and 4-3 since 2004.
Most recently, Team USA defeated Brazil in Rio de Janeiro in three sets, 25-23, 25-22, 27-25, to advance to the final round of the 2008 World League. The U.S. Men went on to win World League, becoming the first non-Brazilian team to do so since 2001.
The United States has had a tougher time against No. 2-ranked Russia, the team that defeated the U.S. Men in the 2004 Olympic bronze-medal match. The U.S. Men are 0-2 against Russia since 2004. The two teams last played each other in the final match of the 2007 World Cup. A victory would have given the U.S. Men a spot on the podium and a berth in the Olympic Games, but Russia ended up winning in five sets.
"I think we match up well with Brazil. We have a similar style of play," McCutcheon said. "Russia presents us with some different challenges. They are a little taller than us. But I think every time we play them we get closer."
The U.S. Men now know No. 5 Serbia pretty well after playing it twice in the 2008 World League final round and going 1-1, including a four-set victory in the gold-medal match on July 27. Team USA is 2-4 against Serbia since 2004 and 9-11 since 1981.
Team USA is 2-5 against world No. 6 Poland since 2004. Most recently, the United States defeated Poland in five sets in the final round of the 2008 World League tournament.
The U.S. Men are 7-0 against No. 14 Egypt since 1981 and last beat the African team at the 2007 World Cup. Team USA is 16-5 against No. 17 Germany, having last defeated it at the Four Nations Tournament and a follow-up exhibition match, both in Germany.
Can the U.S. Men's National Team make it to the podium in Beijing? It will be fun watching them try.
Teams that have qualified for the 2008 Olympic Games, how they qualified, and the U.S. Men's record against them from 1981-Aug. 1, 2008:
1. China (host country, 21st in the world, 39-11)
2. Brazil (1st World Cup, 1st in the world, 58-69)
3. Russia (2nd World Cup, 2nd in the world, 54-38)
4. Bulgaria (3rd World Cup, 4th in the world, 21-13)
5. Egypt (Africa zone qualifier, 14th in the world, 7-0)
6. Serbia (Europe zone qualifier, 5th in the world, 9-11)
7. USA (NORCECA zone qualifier, 3rd in the world)
8. Venezuela (South America zone qualifier, 20th in the world, 9-3)
9. Japan (Asia zone qualifier, 11th in the world, 136-59)
10. Germany (Winner of Dusseldorf, Germany qualifying tournament, 17th in the world, 16-5)
11. Italy (Winner of Tokyo, Japan qualifying tournament, 10th in the world, 19-37)
12. Poland (Winner of Espinho, Portugal qualifying tournament, 6th in the world, 31-14)