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Solving the puzzle

June 20, 2008, 2:39 p.m. (ET)

On June 11, the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) announced the schedule for the preliminary matches of the Olympic indoor volleyball tournament. The U.S. women are in pool A, and their first match will be held August 9 against 29th-ranked Venezuela.

The U.S. women are currently ranked fourth in the world.

U.S. head coach Jenny Lang Ping would not comment on any of the 11 other women's volleyball teams that have qualified for the 2008 Olympics. But a match against a team ranked far down in the standings should help the U.S. gain confidence as the Olympics begin.

At the Pan Am Cup in early June, the U.S. national team's youngest players beat Venezuela in a five-game match. With seasoned veterans likely to make the U.S. Olympic volleyball team, the U.S. will likely beat Venezuela more decisively in Beijing.

But with less than two months to go before the first Olympic match, Lang Ping has yet to determine which veterans and which young players will comprise the 12-woman Olympic team.

Although many of the younger players have trained with Lang Ping at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs this spring, 15 members of the women's national team played overseas in pro leagues throughout the fall and winter. Most didn't return home until mid-May.

"The first time we had the full team was Monday (June 9)," Lang Ping said after the first of a three-match exhibition tournament with Brazil, held June 11 at OTC in Colorado Springs. Brazil is currently the top ranked team in the world.

Lang Ping and her staff are using the three-match exhibition tournament, plus the World Grand Prix, held over three consecutive weekends from June 20 until July 6 in Asia and Europe (with the finals slated for July l8-13, if the U.S. qualifies), to pick 12 players from a group of at least 16 talented athletes to go to Beijing.

Eight are Olympic veterans. Logan Tom, who was key in helping the U.S. finish third in the World Cup in November 2007, which qualified the U.S. for the Olympics, has returned to the national team after playing professionally overseas and on the beach for the U.S. for the past three years. She competed in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, where the U.S. finished fourth and fifth, respectively.

The U.S. women have not medaled in indoor volleyball since 1992.

Also aiming for a third Olympics are Stacy Sykora, the team's libero who earned the best digger award at the 2000 Olympics; Heather Bown, an all-around player who finished second on her team at the 2000 Olympics in blocks, serving aces, and hitting percentage; and Robyn Ah Mow-Santos, named most valuable player in her European pro league last season.

(A libero specializes in defense and serve reception. She wears a contrasting uniform and can replace any back-row player throughout a match without counting as a substitution.)

Striving to make their second Olympic team are starting setter Lindsey Berg, Tayyiba Haneef-Park, who helped the U.S. score the bronze at the 2007 World Cup, and Ogonna Nnamani, a reserve on the 2004 Olympic team. A three-time All-American high jumper at Long Beach State College who is 6'7" tall, Haneef-Park also competed in the 2000 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, finishing tenth.

Danielle Scott-Arruda has her eye on a fourth trip to the Games.

Younger players vying for the Olympic team are Stanford University star Cynthia Barboza, who scored the second highest number of kills (11) in the first exhibition match against Brazil, and Kristin Richards, a Stanford grad who holds the school's record for career digs (1,597).

Coach Lang Ping says she is not looking necessarily for the most powerful players to take to Beijing (the former Chinese volleyball star's hometown).

"We are trying to solve this big puzzle and see which area of the game is more important to make up for areas we lack," Lang Ping has said. "For example, we may have players that are not as strong at the net, but they are great in the back row. It doesn't mean we have to bring the best hitters as we need balance as well."

"I have a feeling we have 16 players to fight for the 12 spots on the Olympic roster," she adds. "For a few positions, we will probably make a last minute decision. Before going to China, we will have four or five days training in California with 14 or 15 players in case of injuries and make our last minute decisions there if needed."

Although some will no doubt be frustrated when their names do not appear on the Olympic roster, the women and their coach say it's a positive competition for the 12 spots.

"Everybody tries to compete, tries to play better," Lang Ping says. "You make your teammates better, not the other way around. We take 12. It doesn't mean that the others are not good. It just depends on what the team needs. The others are great players who push the team."

When asked if she is confident about making the Olympic squad, Barboza says she isn't really focusing on it. "At this point, I'm just trying to get better. That's all I can really focus on. I'm just trying to learn from the teammates around me and make a push for that spot."

No matter which 12 are selected, the challenge is learning to play with each other to improve ball connections, says Lang Ping. In the U.S.-Brazil exhibition matches in mid-June, Brazil won two out of three.

When asked what puts Brazil on the top, Lang Ping says, "(They have) very good ball control, and they play really fast from the back row. It's hard to find a weakness. That's why they are number one."

In addition to playing Venezuela at the Olympics, the U.S. will also compete against China, Cuba, Japan, and Poland in pool A. In third, Cuba is the only team ranked higher than the U.S. in pool A. China is ranked sixth, Japan eighth, Poland ninth, and Venezuela 29th.

Brazil and number-two-ranked Italy are in pool B.

"All the teams who have qualified for the Olympic Games are pretty good," Lang Ping says. "You have to play perfect or your opponent can knock you off. I would think six to eight teams have a good opportunity to medal at the Olympic Games. Also, it will take a little bit of luck for teams as the crossover from the pool play into the quarterfinal match-up will play a role on who advances into the medal round."

Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.