The Gauntlet is Thrown Down

Oct. 21, 2009, 11:18 a.m. (ET)

Final Match vs Cuba

Match Score: 25-21, 22-25, 25-21, 25-22

Starters: Setter: Kevin Hansen; Opposite: Evan Patak; Middles: Andy Hein and David Lee;  Leftsides: Sean Rooney and Reid Priddy; Libero: Rich Lambourne.

Highlight statistic: CUBA 3 - 1  

Conditions:  Match time: 10:15 p.m.  Silky warm. Crowd of 5000 stayed after the five-set win by Puerto Rico over Canada. Many left as the match encroached on normal bedtimes.

I have seen the various renditions of the Cubans over the years since 1970. This version may be the best: Young, very fit, quick, arms long enough that they don't have to bend at the waist to tie their shoes, hands big enough to palm bowling balls, jumps high enough they could go eye-to-eye with the cow as it went over the moon. We lost to them but we had a shot at winning all the way. They were able to sustain consistent pressure with their big jump serves and transitional attack just a little bit longer. 

I think that team consistency comes from their ability to schedule long training blocks together since they don't have any guys that play in international leagues. The result was a more steady performance. Our guys came in from all corners of the Earth to play with very little training time as a team. We had experience blended with youth but we were a half a bubble off. 

The Cubans have thrown down the gauntlet in this zone. They set the standard. Our challenge will be to get enough team training time in the toughest team game there is. The Cuban challenge will be, of course, keeping their players on their island. They come to these tournaments and see other players from the various countries carrying their iPods, cell phones glued to their ears, wearing different clothes, and free to wander. They hear about the contracts these guys receive for playing on clubs and can actually keep the money they make. No wonder that at virtually every tournament at least one Cuban player bolts.

I haven't heard what happened to the most recent defector in Puerto Rico. A 20 year-old 6-10 fellow without money doesn't blend in the general Puerto Rican public.

Can you imagine how terrified this young man must have been first making the decision to run and then doing it. On Thursday, October 15, about 7 p.m. he told his teammates he was going up to his room to take a bath. That is the last they saw him. The authorities searched. They checked the hotel's security cameras. They checked hospitals and other hotels. Nothing. He left everything in his room. He was wearing knock off jeans, a Cuban volleyball shirt. I doubt he had any real money. Cuban pesos would have less value than confederate script. 

The authorities' first concern was his safety. The whole thing has been kept quiet.

Orlando Samuels, the long time Cuban coach is a true gentleman, sportsman, and friend. I don't know if he takes heat when a player drifts on his watch.  I hope not. I know despite their excellent talent they look sad and isolated. (Editor's note: The Cuban player, Leonardo Leyva, showed up at a U.S. immigration office in Puerto Rico on Tuesday seeking asylum: Click here to read the story).

All the political foo-foo-rah aside, the target of our Olympic defense begins with neutralizing Cuba. We can and we will.

There you have it. My last blog for this journey. I have had the honor and privilege to have been involved with the USA program for many years. I am always in awe of being involved. It is an extraordinary honor.