US men's volleyball team reaches gold-medal match

Aug. 22, 2008, 9:40 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) An Olympics that began tragically has evolved into a moment of glory for American volleyball.

The unbeaten men's indoor team is now one victory away from the gold medal it craves to win for a coach still able to calm them even as he grapples with family heartbreak.

Narrowly ahead in the deciding fifth set of Friday's semifinal match with Russia, the American men "had some confusion" in the final time-out, captain Tom Hoff said. Coach Hugh McCutcheon took matters in hand.

"Hugh came over to us, right at the end, and told us, 'Here's what we're going to do on this serve,'" Hoff said. "It had a great calming effect - it was the correct choice."

Within moments, David Lee emphatically blocked a Russian spike, and the Americans - for the first time since 1988 - were through to the gold medal match, against either Brazil or Italy.

McCutcheon wasn't even with his team for its first three matches last week. On Aug. 9, before the opening match, the coach's father-in-law, Todd Bachman, was fatally stabbed at a Beijing tourist site by a man who then committed suicide. Bachman's wife, Barbara, was severely injured; she is now recovering in Minnesota.

Since then, the team has rallied together emotionally, acknowledging openly that winning in honor of McCutcheon's volleyball-loving family has become an inspirational goal. The U.S. women also will play for gold; the men's and women's beach volleyball teams already won their competitions.

"We're playing for a lot of things, and that's one of the things," Lee said after Friday's 25-22, 25-21, 25-27, 22-25, 15-13 victory.

"We've got motivation coming out of our ears," said setter Lloy Ball, who is playing in his fourth Olympics.

Since returning to the team, which his family urged him to do, McCutcheon has been candid in discussing the emotional challenge he faces.

"I'm really trying to just compartmentalize what's been going on personally," he said after Friday's match.

"It's hard - you almost have to mentally prepare to come into the gym," he added. "One of the reasons I'm here is because I know so many more lives are invested in this than just my own. ... I wouldn't be here if I wasn't ready to give it everything I got and be in the right frame of mind."

As soon as the tournament ends, however, McCutcheon made clear his focus would shift immediately away from volleyball.

"This is wonderful for our team, for the guys - it's a fantastic achievement and I'll embrace it and enjoy it," he said. "But as soon as we're done I've got to get to where I'm needed, which is with my family."

McCutcheon, a former player with New Zealand's national team, has coached the U.S. squad since 2005. His wife, Elisabeth "Wiz" Bachman McCutcheon, played for the U.S. women's team at the 2004 Olympics, so the couple has deep ties throughout the volleyball community

The coach was asked if his family watched the Russia match.

"I hope they were sleeping," he replied, "because Lord knows they've been having a hard time doing that."

Friday's match was a seesaw affair - the Americans coming from behind to win the first two sets, failing to overcome early deficits in the next two as the Russians ratcheted up their intensity. Russia had far more of its fans on hand than the Americans - they loudly chanted "Russ-i-a, Russ-i-a" and often jeered as American players prepared to serve.

At the end, as American reserves stormed the court and joined in a raucous victory celebration, McCutcheon stayed quietly at the sideline.

"I'm a fairly reserved person - I don't wear my heart on my sleeve," he said. "I wanted to shake the (Russian) coach's hand because it was a hell of a match. I'm not going to run around like a headless chicken. It's just not me."

He did offer a heartfelt pitch for his team, whose matches haven't figured as prominently on American TV as other events.

"This team represents what's good about team sports - the sum of our hearts is much greater than the individual aspects of this team," he said. "A bunch of guys playing selflessly - a lot of unity and a lot of strength. ... I don't know if that is of any interest to America, but that's what they're missing."

The team is stacked with veterans - eight of its 12 players are at least 30, many of them experiencing medal-less Olympics in 2000 and 2004.

"We've had to endure some tough times, and we're just real happy that our coach is with us right now," said Reid Priddy, a team member since 2000. "We're just so stoked for U.S. volleyball. It's a good moment for our sport and our country."