The last time the U.S. men’s indoor volleyball teams struck gold at the Pan American Games was 1987. Every athlete on this year’s team wasn’t even born yet.
The women’s team has go back 20 more years to 1967 to stake claim at first place. That was nearly two decades before any of this year’s players were born.
Meanwhile, a U.S. beach volleyball team has never won a gold medal at the Pan American Games, although that sport didn’t debut until 1999.
It’s been long drought without bringing home gold. The four U.S. teams are hoping to fix that this year in Toronto. The beach tournament begins July 13, while the indoor action starts July 16.
U.S. Men’s Team Full of ‘Up-and-Comers’
Heading into last year’s Pan American Cup, U.S. men’s coach Charlie Sullivan knew expectations weren’t high. Sullivan’s team was mostly comprised of college juniors, while the other eight teams were their country’s national team. Yet the Americans surprised the field by earning three consecutive three-game sweeps to get into the gold-medal match.
“We were really underrated,” Sullivan said. “We had no international experience, and we came in second.”
Four of those players — Taylor Averill, Michael Brinkley, Zach La Cavera and AJ Nally — are back to compete in the Pan American Games. It’s a group of players Sullivan calls “up-and-comers.”
“These are younger guys that have a future but haven’t had a chance to get into that World League roster or the first roster,” said Sullivan, who is the Springfield College coach during the regular season.
The youngest and most intriguing player is TJ DeFalco. The 18-year-old recently graduated from high school in Huntington Beach, California, and is a star in the making as one of four outside hitters on the U.S. roster. He was also a 2014 Youth Olympian in beach volleyball.
Sullivan believes Brazil, which won gold in the 2011 Pan American Games, Cuba and Canada will be three of the top teams to beat in the tournament. The United States took fifth four years ago
“It’s going to be wake up and go hard, or wake up and go slow and be in a whole lot of trouble,” Sullivan said. “We’ve got to hit the ground running. We can’t take a minute off.”
U.S. Women Are Carrying Over Momentum
Just 25 days before the start of the women’s indoor volleyball matches at the Pan American Games, the U.S. team captured gold at the Pan American Cup. The U.S. players are hoping to carry over that momentum.
The team features a core of veteran players in Kristin Hildebrand, Lauren Paolini, Nicole Fawcett and Cassidy Lichtman, who is the lone returner who played in the Pan American Games in 2011.
“I’d say it’s a pretty good mixture of experience and some of the younger girls,” said Hildebrand, the captain and oldest player on the team at 30. “If you look at the roster from top to bottom, we’ve got a few pretty young girls and a few of us that have been to many international competitions.”
The young players caught the eye of Hildebrand during early practices, namely Krista Vansant. The 22-year-old outside hitter is coming off an MVP performance at the Pan American Cup, which was her first international competition. Another solid young athlete is Natalie Hagglund from USC. The team’s libero was a catalyst in the gold-medal performance in the recent Pan American Cup.
In the 2011 Pan American Games, Brazil downed Cuba for the gold. Those two teams should be contenders again this year, along with the Dominican Republic, noted Hildebrand.
The U.S. team, which has brought home bronze the last four times in the Pan American Games, has high expectations.
“As is with every tournament, we go in wanting to win it,” Hildebrand said. “With one point, one set, one match, one team at a time, and I think we have the potential to do that.”
Young Beach Teams Have Shown Promise
Since beach volleyball debuted in the Pan American Games in 1999, a U.S. team has medaled just once, when the men won a silver medal in 2007.
Two up-and-coming teams will look to break that trend in Toronto.
For the men, Miles Evans and Ian Satterfield will compete in Group C, along with Argentina, Cuba and St. Lucia. Betsi Metter and Kelley Larsen join Colombia, Guatemala and El Salvador in the women’s Group C.
Both teams reached their respective third-place matches at the NORCECA beach qualifier in June at Hermosa Beach, California, with the women taking third. Metter and Larsen finished fifth at the 2014 FIVB U23 World Championships.
The Pan American Games medal round will be July 21.
Greg Bates is a freelance writer based in Green Bay, Wisconsin, who has covered Green Bay Packers games for a number of media outlets for the past eight seasons. He has been a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org since 2010 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.