London is calling, and the Americans answered. Thanks to a dominant performance against a very good Canadian team, the USA National Men’s Volleyball team is now officially the USA Olympic Men’s Volleyball team, as their victory in the gold medal match of the NORCECA Olympic Qualifying Tournament officially punches their ticket to the 2012 Olympics this Summer in London, England. The Americans’ serving and defense boosted them to the 28-26, 25-18, 25-20 victory.
“It’s a special, special thing,” said head coach Alan Knipe, currently on leave from Long Beach State. “This is what I wanted to leave Long Beach to do. Today allows us the opportunity to go experience that.”
For Knipe and the three Long Beach State alums on the roster, qualifying in the Pyramid was extra special. “I mean, it’s nice to see the picture of me on the wall with long hair,” said former 49er David Lee. “It brings back great memories. I had my whole family here, it’s nice to be so close to home.”
More than just the specific memories for Lee, Paul Lotman, and David McKenzie, the whole team enjoyed the rabidly pro-American crowd. Even on American soil, that kind of showing is rare—for example, playing in Chicago, Poland drew more than the Americans.
“I really want to thank the fans of Southern California and especially Long Beach,” said Knipe. “It doesn’t surprise me at al that they came out. It’s the greatest environment I’ve ever been a part of as a part of USA Volleyball. The crowd inspired our guys, and we can’t thank them enough.”
In the first set, the Americans did battle with the trenchant Canadians and came out victorious by the slimmest of margins. After taking a 7-3 lead on the strength of three blocks, they let Canada get off a 7-3 run, with Dallas Soonias’ ace tying the score at 10. Thanks to a right-side blast from Clay Stanley and two hitting errors from Canada, the score was 22-20 USA, and they appeared headed for victory, but Matt Anderson’s over pass kill attempt sailed long, and another hitting error tied it at 22.
The US never fell behind, but it took four thrilling set points to finally secure the victory. Each time they pulled ahead, Canada managed to scrape out a point, usually on the wide shoulders of their stud opposite, Soonias. Finally, Reid Priddy put the team on his back and blasted a pair from outside to get the 28-26 win, sending the patriotic sellout crowd into a bell-ringing, flag-waving frenzy.
The second frame was less intense, thanks mostly to Stanley. He had back to back kills from the right side, and then a smoking ace to give the USA a 7-3 lead, and it never got closer than three points, as the USA tallied another three blocks, and Canada had another four service errors which choked off any momentum they managed to build.
The crowd and the Americans were clearly out of it a bit in the start of the third set, though it’s unclear if it was the 2-0 lead or the humidity inside the Pyramid, which had its ventilation system severely tested by the standing-room only crowd. The red, white, and blue wilted early, falling behind 7-5 while giving away four points on service and hitting errors. But Knipe didn’t panic, and didn’t take a timeout—he waited for the technical timeout, trailing 8-6, and then his team responded, tying the match at nine points. They took their first lead in emphatic fashion, stuffing the Canada attack with a triple block to go up 11-10.
Slowly but surely, the American’s pulled away, and inched closer to securing that Olympic spot. When Anderson won a hard-fought point with a smashed kill from the outside to put the USA up 18-13, the noise began to build in the stands. Canada was able to take advantage of the excitable Americans to pull it within a deuce at 22-20, but their next play was a service error, the crowd reached a fever pitch. By the time the Americans finally closed it, on Anderson’s team-leading 13th kill, the pointed roof was about to pop off the building.
See what the view was like from inside Walter Pyramid as the USA celebrated their win:
The USA closed the tournament in impressive fashion. They went 5-0 in the week of play in the Pyramid, and only lost one set en route to London. On Saturday, they were led by 13 kills from Anderson and a dozen from Stanley. Long Beach State alum David Lee had five blocks to lead the team, and the USA had 11 blocks to Canada’s 5, and four aces, two of them coming from Stanley.
The Americans won several Tournament awards, as Anderson was named Hitter of the Tourney, Stanley was named MVP of the Tourney, and the former 49er Lee was named best blocker.